Canada’s roughly 250,000 federal public servants are being primed for an eventual return to their workplaces, though many are expected to continue working remotely for the foreseeable future.
The preparations, which include the distribution of a 30-page guidebook, come as provinces continue easing restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 and more Canadians return to their offices and other places of employment.
The vast majority of federal public servants have been working from home since mid-March, during which time many have been called upon to help roll out huge new support programs for Canadians affected by the pandemic.
In a message to public servants on Monday, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, who oversees the bureaucracy as a workforce, said the return to federal worksites would vary based on local conditions and each department’s requirements.
“Re-opening access to federal worksites will be gradual and will vary from organization to organization, each according to their own operational circumstances,” Duclos said. “As plans unfold, the health and safety of employees will be our priority.
“Planning is being guided by the decisions of public health authorities, including Canada’s chief public health officer, and will take into consideration the local public health situation and the nature of the work.”
The federal public service has been praised for the speed with which it has rolled out a variety of support programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit during the pandemic.
It has also been criticized for the closure of Service Canada offices across the country since March, particularly as minimum-wage employees in grocery stores and other workplaces continued to work.
There have also been concerns about the impact that working from home has had on the federal access-to-information system along with tasks requiring access to sensitive government material such as military procurement.
Questions have also been raised about whether many public servants will eventually work from home on a permanent basis, reflecting discussions that many other industries are starting to have.
The guidebook released on Monday includes directions to senior management to take into consideration their departments’ own requirements as well as the circumstances of individual employees and their families.
“Employees whose work can be done remotely should continue to take advantage of recent investments in IT infrastructure and digital skills, as the work and equipment permit,” the guidebook tells federal workers.
“Employees who are considered vulnerable as defined by public health agencies should be supported to continue to work remotely when possible; this includes people with chronic illnesses or are immuno-suppressed (or living with others who qualify).”
The guidebook makes clear that the return to “normal” will take time while leaving open the idea that some federal public servants may end up working from home for good.
Federal departments and agencies are also directed to track and report on cases of COVID-19 among their staff, which includes tracking incidents in which employees refuse to work on safety grounds.
“The information provided by departments and agencies in the COVID-19 tracker will enable decision making on the return to the worksite from a health and safety lens,” the guidebook says.
© 2020 The Canadian Press