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Why is remote work a major sticking point in PSAC negotiations? What you need to know

psac-strike-vw0427
psac-strike-vw0427

The issue of remote work continues to be a sticking point in negotiations between the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and Ottawa as federal employees enter their second week of nationwide strikes.

Here’s what you need to know.

What are PSAC’s remote work demands?

PSAC represents more than 155,000 federal public servants, including 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers who are represented by the Union of Taxation Employees, a unit of the larger union. Before April 19, when a majority of those workers went on strike, federal employees had been working without renewed contracts that first expired in 2021.

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The union had hundreds of demands, most of which Ottawa said have been resolved, but the two sides have yet to come to a consensus on key points, such as wage increases, seniority and contracting of some jobs.

Remote work is another outstanding issue. PSAC wants “the right to work remotely to be enshrined in the collective agreement,” a spokesperson said in an email. But the union isn’t asking that all employees be given the option to work from home for a specific number of days each week. Rather, it wants remote work rights to be included in the collective agreement, so that anyone with a job that could feasibly be done from home, and who asks for a hybrid schedule, can get one, subject to operational requirements.

“An employee can request say, two days of remote work per (week) and if the employee’s job would allow them to (work from home), the employer could not unreasonably deny them,” the spokesperson said. “If their request IS denied, and say one of their colleagues’ requests was granted, the employee who was denied can file a grievance.”

 PSAC president Chris Aylward on April 26.
PSAC president Chris Aylward on April 26.

PSAC and its members have been fighting back against a mandated return to office since December, when Treasury Board President Mona Fortier announced federal employees would be required onsite two to three days a week starting this spring. The policy took full effect March 31.

At the time of the the announcement, PSAC president Chris Aylward called the new policy “senseless” and said unionized workers were “furious” over the plan. “The federal government’s blanket hybrid work plan … forces a flawed one-size-fits-all approach on a diverse and evolving public service,” PSAC said in a statement.

What is Ottawa’s stance?

The Treasury Board, which is the nominal employer of public servants, published an open letter on April 24 addressing remote work and other issues holding up negotiations. Regarding remote work, Ottawa said it proposed reviewing the “current telework directive” together with unions in the latest round of bargaining. The framework for managers was last updated in April 2020, replacing the telework policy from December 1999, according to the government website.

But the Treasury Board has also made it clear that it’s not interested in enshrining remote work in the union’s collective agreement. Ottawa says work-from-home decisions should be made by managers, and Fortier has said negating that is “a red line” for Ottawa.

 Treasury Board President Mona Fortier.
Treasury Board President Mona Fortier.

Determining where employees work is a key management right and responsibility,” Barb Couperus, a Treasury Board spokesperson, said in an emailed statement, adding that the policy “ensures a consistent and equitable workplace” for federal workers. 

Enshrining remote work in contracts would ultimately take away managers’ decision-making abilities, she said.

“Including PSAC’s demand that remote work be included in collective agreements would essentially mean that each individual employee would have the right to decide where they work, restricting managers’ ability to manage their teams and ultimately impacting operations and our services to Canadians,” Couperus said.

Can the remote work divide be bridged?

It’s not certain whether PSAC will be successful in having remote work language baked into the new collective agreement.

Ottawa could be hesitant to concede power over remote work decisions because it can open up a “Pandora’s box” of issues, said Sunil Johal, a policy professor at the University of Toronto who chaired the panel review of the federal labour code in 2019. A sudden mountain of employee grievances over being denied the ability to work from home is likely one issue they’re trying to avoid.

“You’re going to see a lot of people filing grievances and saying, ‘Well, my colleague was granted the ability to telework and I wasn’t,’ and then that will kickstart a long and time-consuming process to (grieve it),” he said if PSAC wins. “That’ll just kind of be happening thousands of times all over the civil service, so I think for the federal government, as an employer, that’s something they don’t want to get into.”

Further, he said, the jury’s out on whether remote work actually helps or hinders productivity, as the pandemic experience can’t be relied upon as an accurate representation of its success. The pandemic “threw everything off kilter,” Johal said.

How are private sector unions handling remote work in their members’ contracts?

Lana Payne, president of Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada, said the issue of teleworking has come up in past contract negotiations, even before COVID-19. (The Financial Post’s Toronto newsroom is a member of Unifor.) But it’s taken on more importance in recent bargaining because the pandemic showed it’s possible to work effectively outside the office. As a result, including remote work clauses in collective agreements is coming up more often, she said.

 Lana Payne, president of Unifor.
Lana Payne, president of Unifor.

“The point of bargaining is that you get to bargain the conditions of work, including where that works take place,” Payne said.

Unifor is also taking steps to ensure that remote jobs don’t get shipped offshore by employers, and has fought to include strong language preventing the contracting out of jobs in collective agreements, she added.

What would a PSAC win on remote work mean for the private sector?

If successful, any concessions PSAC gets on teleworking could inspire other unionized workers to seek the same protections in their own contracts when it comes time to renegotiate, Johal said.

But those in the private sector might have a harder time getting the same concessions because such employees have lower unionization levels compared to public sector workers, he said. In addition, many private sector workplaces, such as banks, have already mandated that employees return to the office.

There’s also a chance private sector employees, if unhappy with their companies’ remote work policies, could quit their jobs for a more work-from-home friendly role in the government.

“Labour markets are pretty tight right now, so I mean, people are job shopping,” Johal said. “That might make public sector employment more attractive for certain people whom (remote work) is a big issue.”

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