Public Service delays back-to-work as Covid caseload climbs, union says

By Sabrina Nanji October 1, 2020

The Ontario Public Service is hitting pause on return-to-work plans until at least mid-October amid soaring Covid cases, according to AMAPCEO. 

About 10,000 civil servants who were working remotely were slated to start phasing back into their physical workplaces beginning Monday.

But last week, AMAPCEO — the union representing 14,000 professional public servants — called on OPS to reconsider the timing of its back-to-work plans “in light of the alarming trajectory of the province’s case counts and the plan’s timeline.” 

“While I am especially worried about Ontario’s upward trend, I am relieved to see the employer has listened to our concerns and put a pause on their plans,” reads a memo AMAPCEO president Dave Bulmer sent to members this week. 

Bulmer told Queen’s Park Today the government “surprised everyone” by stipulating a staged return starting this week, as opposed to sometime between November and January, which was the original expectation.

However, ministries couldn’t make the turnaround, so OPS hit the brakes. “The far earlier than anticipated date left them very hard-pressed to have safety precautions in place,” Bulmer said. 

Per AMAPCEO, the directive to return earlier than expected came from the government via Secretary of Cabinet Steven Davidson, not necessarily the employer, Treasury Board. 

A memo Davidson sent to all OPS staff on September 2 that was independently obtained by Queen’s Park Today said the return to work would start this week and run through December. 

“It is anticipated the average maximum capacity for a workplace will be about 30 per cent at any one time,” Davidson’s memo states. Roughly 30,000 public servants have been working remotely since mid-March.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy‘s office maintained the government is “currently proceeding with this reopening as planned, while constantly evaluating against and aligning with advice from the Ministry of Health and Chief Medical Officer of Health.” 

“Ministries and management will continue to be flexible and understanding of employees’ individual circumstances, which will be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” added the minister’s spokesperson Sebastian Skamski.

Ministries are required to hand in their plans for a safe return this week. AMAPCEO is pushing the province to mirror the private sector in allowing employees who are able to work from home to continue doing so until Covid is no longer around or there’s a widely available vaccine. 

“Ministries are being told to encourage staff to continue to work remotely, where possible, and only have staff come into the workplace where absolutely necessary,” Bulmer added.  

This story has been updated to clarify the timing of the phased return to work.