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Remote work second only to wages for some federal workers on picket line

The federal government has proposed to jointly review its current remote directive with unions
One of the major sticking points is the union's call for more flexibility to allow workers to do their jobs from home. | Alistair Berg/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Federal civil servants returned to picket lines in the capital region on the sixth day of a nationwide strike Monday, as the government offered to review its return-to-office orders for remote workers — but didn’t budge on its latest wage offer.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada said about 100,000 of its members remain on strike.

The union is asking for a 13.5 per cent wage increase over three years. As part of separate negotiations, Canada Revenue Agency workers who are members of the Union of Taxation Employees, a PSAC subdivision, are asking for 20.5 per cent over three years.

The Treasury Board and the Canada Revenue Agency have offered the unions nine per cent over three years on the recommendation of the third-party Public Interest Commission. PSAC has also asked for more flexibility on the government’s return-to-office plan.

On Monday, Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board, said the government has proposed to jointly review the current telework directive with unions, adding a formal review would ensure the approach is up to date with employees’needs while still serving Canadians.

Most federal public servants had worked from home since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, but were required to start working from their offices at least two to three days a week by a March deadline.

At the Esquimalt Graving Dock, a group of strikers said many have been working on a hybrid model that requires them to be in the office at least two days a week for meetings and in-person work.

Sue Taylor said for her, when it comes to the main issues for those on the picket line, remote work is second only to wages.

“I don’t think we need people constantly driving into work when they don’t need to come to work, parking is an issue, so if they can work from home, why not?

“I’d be really upset I think if they didn’t allow hybrid — they have to move with the times already,” said Taylor.

Rinu Cassells, who works in the same department as Taylor, said the hybrid model has proven to be flexible and productive for workers, their employer and the public.

Kuldeep Deol, local president of Government Services Union Local 20001 who was on the picket lines in Victoria, said she lives in Kamloops but reports to a Vancouver office two days a week.

Deol said federal public sector union employees who work remotely are expected to find a picket line near them to support the job action. “If you are working from home [during the strike], you are considered a scab and there will be or may be consequences,” she said.

On April 1, the provincial government opened up job ­postings to people living in any B.C. community where the hiring ministry has an office.

At the time, Shannon Salter, head of the B.C. public service, said the 36,000-member-strong B.C. public service lost about 3,000 employees just last year and filling those vacancies is an “urgent issue.” The provincial move to embrace remote work was in contrast to the federal government’s December directive that employees would be required to work in a office at least two to three days a week as of March 31.

Julie MacArthur, associate professor in the school of business at Royal Roads University, said the pandemic has forced a lot of people to think about their work-life balance and whether the remuneration from work actually covers the broader costs to their life.

At the federal level, however, there are very real and reasonable security concerns in some federal public sector jobs about working in different places connected to different networks, she said. “Not everyone can move to an island and work from home.”

As picket lines resumed Monday following a weekend break, the focus was on hampering access to ports across the country, including in Saanich and Victoria.

Ernest Hooker, a 36-year federal government employee who serves as a regional co-ordinator for PSAC, said a picket line that went up at 25 Huron St. could merely mean laundry trucks for ship crews won’t get through — or it could mean essential search and rescue responders are slightly delayed. “We’re not out to stop them, but if they have to go a little slower to get to their work … that’s what we’re trying to do here,” said Hooker.

“We just hope that anyone who has a moral compass or a union affiliation would say: ‘I’m not going to do my business there today.’ ”

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