With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, there is renewed hope across the country that workers will soon return to offices that have been mostly vacant for nearly two years.
Governments have led the way in many jurisdictions by announcing back-to-work plans for civil service workers, which business leaders hope will spur other industries to follow suit.
In Ontario, more than 60,000 government employees will be required to return to in-person work for at least three days a week starting April 4. The proof of vaccination requirement for staff should end the same day, except at high-risk gathering places, Ontario Cabinet Secretary Michelle DiEmanuele said in a memo to staff.
Employees were allowed to voluntarily return to the office from last Tuesday, and just over half of staff in frontline positions continued to work on site throughout the pandemic. The hybrid arrangement is expected to be temporary.
“We remain committed to providing flexibility to employees. I encourage you to reach out to your manager before Monday, April 4 to discuss what your return to work might look like,” Ms. DiEmanuele said in her memo to staff.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said last Thursday that the government had ordered provincial employees to return to the office by April 4 after the province’s broader work-from-home mandate was lifted on March 1. .
“I hope and expect that as soon as possible we will see these government office towers back with productive public servants and that will further help town centers get back to normal,” Mr Kenney told reporters. .
The Alberta Union of Public Employees said about 5,000 of its members are returning to office in light of the provincial policy change.
The government, AUPE said in a memo to members, has informed the union that its return-to-work plan will be phased, and that all staff are expected to return by April 4.
“A hybrid model where some employees will be able to work from home for up to two days per week will be rolled out department-by-department and branch-by-branch,” the memo reads.
Susan Slade, vice president of AUPE, noted that the hybrid option is not guaranteed for all employees. Staff, she said, will have to apply to work a hybrid schedule and managers will make the decision. This could put some people, such as those who are immunocompromised or medically ineligible for a vaccine, at risk given that all of Alberta’s COVID-19 precautions are now gone, she warned.
The province also repealed its vaccination mandate for government employees on March 1, and members on unpaid leave were expected to return to work that day.
“At-risk workers may not qualify under employer eligibility,” she said.
Calgary oil and gas company office workers are also starting to return to the office with a handful of large companies, such as TC Energy and ConocoPhillips, offering hybrid models to give employees the option to work remotely two days a week.
In British Columbia, the mandatory work-from-home order was lifted in mid-February, with public service employees also returning to the office. The Quebec government is gradually bringing bureaucrats back to their desks at least two days a week, between February 28 and April 4. Mandatory remote work for non-essential workers in the private sector also ended last Monday in the Province.
Ontario business leaders said the hybrid return plan for the public service is a clear sign of government confidence that businesses can return to a sense of normalcy.
Ontario Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rocco Rossi said he hopes other industries, like banks, will follow suit and propel a major comeback in urban centers. This in turn could boost business for local shops and restaurants that are struggling to stay afloat. Small businesses are grappling with the uncertainty surrounding the restrictions and many are facing mounting debt, some topping $200,000, Rossi noted.
“It sets an example and says it’s not irresponsible to ask people to come back to the office,” he said in an interview. “The government can say to small businesses, ‘Hey you’re allowed to reopen, you don’t need to use the vaccine passport anymore’, but if there’s no foot traffic, then it’s not just a recipe for going bankrupt faster.
Unions affected by the change have expressed concern about the mandate and the lack of flexibility to return to office.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union said the change did not give workers enough time to adjust to the changes and deal with family needs, such as child care. Neil Martin, chairman of the union’s central employee relations committee, said a gradual and voluntary return would be best to ensure employees feel safe and comfortable returning.
“We were surprised by the three-day minimum requirement from April. We expected the employer to be more gradual in its approach,” Martin said. “We support the return of our members to a normalcy, we just thought that on the human side of things, we need to be a little softer with the approach.”
With reporting by Kathryn Helmore and Eric Andrew-Gee
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