COVID – Return to Work Planning and Employee Safety

As many of you know, the Employer has stated many times that it wants to take a “cautious” and gradual approach to having employees return to the office. Until recently, the plan was to move to Phase Three in October, with all employees returning to the office 50% of the time. Since most employees had been fulfilling their duties from home for several months, there was no customer service rationale for this plan. It was simply part of the Employer’s goal of getting all employees back to the office as soon as possible.

In late September, a record number of COVID cases prompted the provincial government to elevate the pandemic response to Level Orange. The Employer then announced it was backing off  its plan to move to Phase Three.

Employees were understandably relieved, that is, until the Employer then announced it would launch a different version of Phase Three. Instead of having all employees come back 50% of the time, employees in 14 areas across nearly the entire organization would start delivering services in offsite locations such as workers’ homes and employers’ workplaces.

Not surprisingly, the Union has received many questions and concerns from employees on this latest decision. Many wonder why this is being undertaken now, with the COVID situation escalating and the province introducing stricter measures to control the spread.

The Employer’s stated reason for this plan is to address gaps in customer service. We all understand the importance of customer service. What we don’t understand is exactly where and how service is now lacking and where the demand for off-site services is coming from. This is because the Employer has been either unwilling or unable to tell us.

All of us understand that there are some circumstances, such as assisting workers with severe injuries, when in-person service is necessary. In those circumstances, the potential risk is balanced with the obvious need. However, as many of you have stated, what you object to is being subjected to unnecessary risk, where it is not clear that possible exposure to a serious hazard is justified by the need. That is what many see unfolding in this “modified” version of Phase Three.

In the Union’s discussion with the Employer since the beginning of the pandemic, the Employer has not wavered from its intention to have all employees back to work in the offices as soon as possible. The fact that many can do their jobs fully and safely from home and prefer to do so is irrelevant to them.

In recent discussions the Employer explicitly stated that its efforts to date, such as requiring people to be in the office one day a week, and “encouraging” or in some cases coercing them to be in the office 50% of the time, was never about customer service. It was just about getting people back to the office.

Because of this, it is understandable that there is a lot of skepticism around the Employer’s most recent decision to have staff start delivering in-person, offsite services.  Without real evidence to show us what the service gaps are and where the demand is coming from, many have concluded it is simply another way to break the pattern of people working from home and make it easier to transition to the ultimate goal of having everyone back in the office, regardless of the safety of members. As one member described it, it is “Phase Three dressed up as Customer Service.”

The fact that the Employer is willing to potentially expose members to a known serious hazard to achieve this goal is especially troubling for an organization that has as part of its mission  to protect workers from job hazards. In addition to this, members, to date, have been informed of three cases of COVID among WCB staff and another case among cleaning staff. This shows that the risk of this virus is very real and that members’ concerns are completely justified.

Another concern that has come up is the inconsistency of the return to the office plan. In one of his recent emails, Jamie Hall stated: “Employees who are not in one of these designated groups who are currently working in the office more than the equivalent of one day a week may reduce their office hours to this level.”  This does not appear to be the case in all areas, as some members are still being told to work 50% of the time in the office. These inconsistencies create a sense of unfairness and disorganization throughout this process.

As noted, many members have already contacted the Union with their concerns and questions. To ensure members’ voices are heard and conveyed (anonymously) to the Employer, please provide any input you may have about the Employer’s plans and how they may affect you by completing the following survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/P2TZF8K.

Please know that your Union continues to fight for your safety and fights to ensure your voices are heard during this difficult and stressful time. We hear you and thank you for sharing your concerns.

In Solidarity,

Dennis Kshyk
President, CUPE 1063