Business groups call on feds to bring public sector employees back to the office

Downtown Ottawa

Members of the Canadian business community are calling on the federal government to bring public sector employees back to their places of work as rapidly as possible.

In a letter signed by Canadian Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Perrin Beatty and containing 32 other signatories, the business leaders argue that many businesses have implemented return-to-the-workplace plans. However, they say, some governments are lagging in their plans to bring public-sector employees back to the office. 

“We call upon all governments that have not implemented plans to bring their employees back to do so as rapidly as possible,” the text of the letter reads.

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The letter states that “virtual connectivity cannot replace meeting with stakeholders in-person and providing Canadians with the quality of government services that they have the right to expect.” 

The letter goes on to say the federal government is “not only a major employer in cities and communities across Canada, but in many places it is the anchor employer. As businesses in these communities assess their long-term viability given the pandemic’s damaging effects on downtown centres, restoring normal economic activity requires the federal government to act now.” 

The letter’s signatories include Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade, and Marc Chenier, general director of the Regroupement des gens d’affaires de la Capitale nationale.

In March 2022, Treasury Board president Mona Fortier gave the green light for federal departments and agencies to begin bringing public servants back to the office.

“Departments and agencies may now resume their planning to gradually increase building occupancy, while continuing to respect the appropriate use of workplace preventive practices,” said Fortier in a statement in March. ”It is my expectation that organizations will continue to be agile and demonstrate flexibility as necessary, in their planning to align to the evolving public health context.”

The Treasury Board released its guidelines on hybrid work arrangements in May, tasking government departments with deciding “whether the location of work can be made flexible, to what extent, and how.”

Deputy heads would make decisions about health and safety in the context of how their organization runs, guided by public health authorities and workplace health and safety committees, Treasury Board spokesperson Barb Couperus said in a statement in May.

Over the coming months, Couperus said departments would gather evidence and test a variety of hybrid approaches.

“Given the diversity of the federal government’s workforce and operations, there will be no one-size-fits-all,” Couperus said, noting work sites vary from coast guard ships to laboratories and prisons.

In July, federal public service unions said the government’s plan to get employees back to the office was confusing, disjointed and jeopardizing health and safety.

Meanwhile, a senior federal bureaucrat said recently the feds expect to soon release a list of surplus government-owned properties that will be available for purchase or partnership in redevelopment, representing 15 to 20 per cent of the existing portfolio of 21 million square feet. 

The assistant deputy minister told the Ottawa Real Estate Forum the sales would be in addition to some planned relocations of an undisclosed number of public servants from buildings with government leases coming to an end in the next few years, to properties where the government has signed long-term leases, as a further means of maximizing the federal public service’s use of space. 

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