Treasury Board president stands by RTO mandate; calls feds’ disposal of properties a ‘cross-country effort’

Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and Treasury Board president Anita Anand at the Mayor's Breakfast on May 23, 2024. (Photo by Mark Holleron)
Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and Treasury Board president Anita Anand at the Mayor's Breakfast on May 23, 2024. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

The president of the Treasury Board stood by the federal government’s decision to have civil servants in the office at least three days a week, but called for exemptions to be made where necessary.

She also spoke to the government’s planned disposal of federal properties, saying it is a “cross-country effort” not focused on only one city.

On Thursday at the Mayor’s Breakfast at City Hall, Anita Anand said the pandemic hit the public service hard, making the return to work difficult. 

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“I think we haven’t had a discussion yet about the effects of COVID on our society,” she said, while in conversation with Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe. “Because it has been so difficult.”

Hybrid work is not going away anytime soon, she said, adding that managers should be flexible in providing accommodations where needed.

“It’s important to have flexibility. It’s important to be able to hear from public servants and employees generally about what they need to cope in the workplace,” she said. “What’s important, and where we should focus our attention, (is) on accommodations and exemptions for public servants who need and require those exemptions.”

She added, “I have faith that we will do more with telework options, so that public servants feel continually supported. My view is that we got through the pandemic with the public servants supporting our country so well and we need to continue to support them.”

Earlier this month, the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) said public servants will be required to work on-site a minimum of three days per week; four days a week for managers, by Sept. 9.

Under the initial mandate, public servants were required to be in the office a minimum of two to three days a week, or 40 to 60 per cent of the time. 

“The move from two or three days to three days was within the range that was put down in the policy before I became Treasury Board president,” Anand said. 

Frustration from unions over office mandate

Unions rallied outside City Hall during the event to protest the latest RTO mandate. 

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents 240,000 federal public sector workers across the country, joined 15 other unions earlier this month in criticizing the government’s decision. 

In a letter to Anand, the unions expressed their “vehement opposition and outrage,” and decried the government’s lack of collaboration with unions. 

“These actions reek of betrayal and contempt, completely undermining the purported respect for workers and their elected representatives that your government claims to uphold,” the letter said. “Without due consideration and consultation, all federal public service workers, whether directly affected by this mandate or not, will experience a loss of trust in the government.”

In a discussion with media after the event, Mayor Sutcliffe expressed his understanding of union frustrations. 

“I have a lot of respect for the public sector unions and the job that they’re doing. Their job is to look out for the interests of their members. I think what we’re looking at is a future for downtown Ottawa that is unlike the past,” he said. “There will be potentially fewer people working downtown and perhaps more people living downtown and more people coming downtown to attend events and restaurants. There’s room for everyone in the conversation.”

Sutcliffe added that while the city does communicate with the federal government on this issue, he is not involved in return to work decision-making. 

“I’ve never made any request of the government, privately or publicly, with regard to the number of days that employees are working in the office,” he said. “That’s a decision and a discussion between the federal government and the public sector unions. It’s not part of my mandate, my responsibility. My job has to be to be ready for whatever happens and to be ready with a plan for the future of downtown Ottawa.”

Federal property disposal a ‘cross-country’ issue

Anand also emphasized that affordable housing was a focal point of the recent federal budget and would be a driving force as the government looks to dispose of some of its underused properties over the next 10 years. 

Last May, the government released a disposal list of properties in the National Capital Region, which included the L’Esplanade Laurier complex downtown, the Sir Charles Tupper Building on Riverside Drive, and the 1500 Bronson Building and Annex. The government’s goal is to reduce its nationwide office footprint by 50 per cent. 

In Ottawa, some properties are being eyed for potential conversion projects. A report released yesterday by the Ottawa Board of Trade called for the process to repurpose old buildings for new uses to be expedited. It also said an federal incentive strategy should introduced to support office-to-residential conversion projects. 

Anand said the focus will be on analyzing the federal government’s leased and owned portfolio to determine which properties are underutilized, allowing the government to save billions of dollars. 

“It is not going to be focused on only one city,” she said. “It really is a cross-country effort.”

She added that finding ways to create more affordable housing will be a top priority. 

“One of the main focal points of the federal budget was on the housing crisis,” she said. “That is part and parcel of a broader plan to increase supply in this country … How can we address the affordable housing issues across this country, especially for younger generations?”

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