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The federal government has been bargaining with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union that represent federal employees.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

At the Public Service Alliance of Canada union, bargaining with the federal government has taken on a different posture lately.

On the table is a perennial demand: raising the wages of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers to keep up with the soaring cost of living, an ask the union has got almost consistently over the years.

But this year, PSAC is fighting hard for something new: enshrining the right to work remotely into the collective agreement, so if workers are forced back to the office even when they believe they can do their jobs from home, they have the formal right to grieve it.

Across the country, as the employer-led push to return to the office grows – formally or informally – private and public sector unions are weighing into the debate firmly, with the aim of giving their members more leverage in determining how and where they work.

“The federal government has left it up to individual department managers to decide how their workers should work, so you have this patchwork system with different standards for different employees. It does not make sense,” said Chris Aylward, PSAC’s national president, in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail.

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The union is at the bargaining table with the Treasury Board this month to negotiate a new collective agreement for more than 155,000 federal government employees, and it wants remote work provisions written into the agreement. PSAC is far from alone among unions.

“You’re going to see more language around remote work in collective agreements,” said Lana Payne, the newly-elected president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union. “The nature of work has changed. Now we need to get collective agreements to reflect that.”

Unifor, Ms. Payne said, is currently negotiating numerous agreements with employers that involve discussions around working from home, notably on behalf of airline reservation workers who have been able to do their jobs remotely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and employees in administration and operations, who have also worked remotely for the past two and a half years.

Unifor’s position on the issue is multifaceted: ensuring employers apply a gender and equity lens in the negotiation of who gets to work from home, establishing clear terms that protect workers against shouldering out-of-pocket expenses related to utility bills and, most importantly, ensuring remote work is voluntary and workers don’t get punished for refusing to come back into the office.

“Employers must not force employees to work remotely … but no one wishing to work remotely should be excluded from remote work opportunities unless the employer can demonstrate undue hardship,” reads a Unifor guidance bulletin issued to its local units on bargaining priorities related to remote work.

At the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), flexible work has been a discussion topic with employers since 2021, when various CUPE locals began negotiating letters of understanding with employers in response to public health restrictions about working in the office. CUPE, too, wants employers to acknowledge, in writing, that work from home should be voluntary, and not change a worker’s employment status, hours of work, compensation or benefits if someone works from home.

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“This discussion around telework was very rare prior to the pandemic,” said Mark Hancock, national president of CUPE. “But central to what unions want is to protect collective agreement rights for workers who have been working from home. If you can demonstrate working from home is suitable for you, then you need to be allowed to continue doing so. If you live in a situation where you can’t work from home you need to have the option of working from the office.”

This summer, the Ontario Compensation Employees Union, a CUPE-affiliated local representing employees at Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), successfully negotiated a work-from-home clause into the renewed bargaining agreement.

The clause states that the employer can determine which roles can be performed from home, but employees who are deemed eligible to work from home can perform 60 per cent or more of their hours there. Employees, however, will have a six-month test period to determine if their performance meets the standards to remain working from home. And employers can only force an employee back into the office if there are disciplinary issues, or issues related to performance or productivity.

Part of the problem with entrenching work-from-home arrangements into collective agreements, argues Matthias Spitzmuller, a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, is it risks taking away existing flexibility employees have to negotiate directly with employers about how and where they work.

“You’re moving from something that has developed informally, because of the pandemic, to suddenly formalizing it. As is sometimes the case with collective agreements, it could mean less flexibility for the worker, and the organization,” Prof. Spitzmuller said.

But many workers seem to want clarity on the subject.

A group called GOC Together, made up of workers who say they are employees of the federal government, recently launched an online petition (which now has more than 10,500 signatures) protesting the “ad-hoc” approach to returning to the office. They say departmental decisions to return to the office are rarely evidence-based, and risk “squandering a rare opportunity to modernize the way we work”.

Indeed, the federal government’s approach to how and where its 300,000-odd employees should work in future is unclear, at best.

In the spring of this year, the Treasury Board implemented a mandate at the recommendation of the Privy Council Clerk for federal government employees to return to the office in a hybrid fashion – a couple of times a week – but left it up to individual departments to decide how to implement the directive.

Some departments, such as the Treasury Board itself, said employees are expected to be working onsite twice a week starting this month, according to a statement e-mailed to The Globe. But others, such as Health Canada, have no specific plans. A spokesperson told The Globe that Health Canada will be a hybrid workplace, determined by “operational requirements and the nature of work”.

On the social media platform Reddit, federal government workers have set up a channel that posts an unofficial, crowdsourced list of which departments are mandating a return to office, and how often workers are expected to be on site.

“DM asked for in office > 50%,” reads a post about Health Canada. “Rumours of 3-4 days in office department wide,” reads another. According to PSAC’s internal data, 75 per cent of members have been working remotely throughout the pandemic, and 90 per cent want to continue working remotely.

Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, believes the involvement of unions in the conversation about remote work is an opportunity to sort out employee-employer preferences once and for all, in a debate that has been raging for the past two years.

“Some employers could even have an incentive to sign deals with unions to save costs by reducing the number of workers who can work in an office space,” he said. “There could also be a spillover effect to non-unionized workplaces as unions and employers align on the remote work issue.”

For Unifor’s Ms. Payne, union demands have always had to evolve with the times, noting that child care provisions and benefits for same-sex couples were once issues employers did not even want to broach, but are now part of many collective agreements.

She believes the lack of clarity around remote work, and the tendency for employers to change their minds on it at any point, are why collective agreements should have provisions in them.

“The silent pressure to return to the office is often felt when you don’t have control over your working conditions. And one of the ways you can have control on this issue is to negotiate it into an agreement,” Ms. Payne said.

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