Alberta government under fire for telling staff to report to work during COVID-19 pandemic

Critics say the Alberta government is needlessly endangering the health of public servants and flouting health officials' advice by directing employees to report for work unless they are showing cold or flu symptoms or have childcare responsibilities.

Sunday night email advised staff to report to work in person if possible

Government of Alberta employees have been told to show up at work, rather than explore options to work from home, employees say. (Juris Graney/CBC)

Update: On Tuesday afternoon, after Premier Jason Kenney declared a public state of emergency in Alberta, Executive Council deputy minister Ray Gilmour sent a follow-up message to government employees.

"Government employees should be prepared to start to work from home where operationally feasible," Gilmour wrote. "Individual departments will establish work schedules that ensure all critical, frontline services continue to be delivered to Albertans. Managers will reach out to their staff to discuss next steps."

Critics say the Alberta government is needlessly endangering the health of public servants and flouting health officials' advice by directing employees to report for work unless they are showing cold or flu symptoms or have child-care responsibilities.

"If you need to miss work on Monday due to child care, you should stay at home," Ray Gilmour, the executive council deputy minister, said in an email distributed Sunday night to all government employees.

"Beyond Monday, we encourage you to look for options, talk to your manager and develop a plan," Gilmour continued. "Depending on your individual circumstances and the needs of your work unit, this could include working from home.

"The Public Service Commission will be issuing further guidance in the coming days. All others are expected to report to their normal workplace as per usual," Gilmour wrote in his email, with the last sentence in bold.

Gilmour said all staff required to self-isolate as recommended by the chief medical officer of health would receive leave with pay.

Gov't should set example, NDP says

Opposition leader Rachel Notley said the Alberta government should be "leading by example, not following by exception." 

Notley said she is concerned the government directive doesn't comply with the advice from public health officials that Albertans should do whatever they can to stay home and avoid potentially spreading the virus.

"We should not be dragging people into work just because," she said.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith said Gilmour's directive is "counterintuitive and counter to everything we are hearing from the health-care community" about allowing employees to work from home if possible.

Premier Jason Kenney's press secretary, Christine Myatt, redirected an interview request from CBC News to the Public Service Commission, saying it was the most appropriate body to respond.

"I don't believe this requires a political response at this time," Myatt said.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Public Service Commission reiterated Gilmour's message that all employees who need to self-isolate will receive leave with pay.

"All others are reporting to their workplace as per usual, while following public health guidelines, including regularly washing hands, avoiding touching their face, nose and eyes, and avoiding contact with coworkers like shaking hands," Wilson Smith said.

"We continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and we are adjusting our response as the situation requires," he said.'In times like these, family is a priority'

In an email sent Monday afternoon to Agriculture and Forestry staff, deputy minister Andre Tremblay said staff were advised to limit all in-person meetings and ensure that social distancing was enforced at any that did occur.

Tremblay's email only mentioned working from home in the context of those with child-care responsibilities as a result of the pandemic.

"The leadership team understands that in times like these, family is a priority," he wrote, saying employees should discuss their individual situations with their managers.

"It will be important, should you be identified as able to work from home, that you identify your IT requirements to your manager as soon as possible to ensure we can support any alternative arrangements."

The Alberta government's online advice to employers during the pandemic states that businesses should consider their workplace continuity plans, including plans to "explore alternate working arrangements, such as working remotely or doing work that doesn't require contact with other people."

Union, gov't discussing concerns 

Notley said the government should follow its own advice to private employers and let employees work remotely wherever possible, and protect those who must attend work in person.

Smith said the union is talking to the Public Service Commission about concerns it is hearing from government employees.

Over the past several days, the province's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw repeatedly stressed that Albertans should limit contact with others and stay home if they are displaying even mild cold or flu symptoms.

"Though I know it is not possible for everyone, the ability to work from home is going to become more important for those in occupations where it is possible," Hinshaw said via video-conference at a Monday briefing.

Hinshaw was in self-isolation after displaying cold symptoms but on Tuesday confirmed she has tested negative for COVID-19.

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