Union says safety must come first as civil servants ordered back to offices amid pandemic

The union representing Alberta civil servants says it will be watching closely to ensure the government safeguards employees' health as civil servants working remotely due to the pandemic return to their offices this month.

'A lot of trepidation, a lot of worry' for staff with July return to the workplace, AUPE says

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says believes a July return to the office for civil servants is too soon, given health officials' warnings about a potential second wave of COVID-19. (Juris Graney/CBC)

The union representing Alberta civil servants says it will be watching closely to ensure the government safeguards employees' health as civil servants working remotely due to the pandemic return to their offices this month under a government directive the union says is premature.

For these employees, there is a "lot of trepidation, a lot of worry about how they are going to be protected, their safety," Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) vice-president Bonnie Gostola said.

"We basically feel that they are really legitimate in that trepidation because of what we had to go through to get them protected during the [COVID-19] crisis, at the very beginning of this process," said Gostola, who also chairs the union's occupational health and safety committee.

She said AUPE feels the return to the workplace is too soon given health officials' warnings about a potential second wave of COVID-19.

In a June 24 memo to Alberta Transportation staff obtained by CBC News, deputy minister Rae-Ann Lajeunesse said "over the course of July, under a cohesive government approach, most [Alberta Public Service] employees who left due to COVID-19 will return to our workplaces."

Lajeunesse said about 30 per cent of Alberta Transportation staff would return to work by July 6, she said, and the plan is to have almost all ministry staff back in the office by the end of July.

At Alberta Energy, many staff will return to their offices during three phases this month, a July 3 email from an assistant deputy minister said.

"It is everyone's responsibility to keep themselves and each other safe, and follow Alberta's public health orders," the email said, adding there will be "zero tolerance for staff in the workplace while ill."

Despite Lajeunesse's memo to staff, a communications director for the Public Service Commission, Wilson Smith, said he could not confirm that the majority of civil servants will be back in the office by the end of the month. Gostola said the union's understanding is most civil servants must be back by that time.

One-way hallways, restricted seating

In a statement, Smith said the government is ensuring "all measures and solutions have been exhausted to accommodate employees to work from home, including changes to work schedules and modified duties.

"Situations where employees identify challenges like childcare and medical conditions will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

He said safety practices will vary across ministries depending on their each workplace but measures could include:

  • one-way hallways and building entrance and exit points;
  • occupancy restrictions in bathrooms and elevators;
  • restricted seating and the installation of barriers in certain areas, with completed hazard assessments;
  • use of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes on shared surfaces, and specific cleaning protocols;
  • signs and markings that give staff safety instructions.

Staff must continue to follow public health advice, including physical distancing.

Workplace hazard assessments

But a document posted on the Government of Alberta's internal website, obtained by CBC News, hints at how difficult that will likely be, especially for employees who work in high-rise office buildings.

"You should be prepared for delays and more time needed at the beginning of the workday, lunch break, travel throughout, and the end of your workday to allow for minimal numbers of people in elevators," it said.

AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola said the union has heard from many civil servants concerned about their safety as they prepare to return to the office. (AUPE/Twitter)

In response to a question about the provision of parking for staff who don't feel safe taking public transit, the document said, "Employees are responsible for their own transportation to and from work and securing parking arrangements."

Gostola said the union is concerned by reports that front-line staff have not been involved in the creation of workplace hazard assessments.

"Having their input is tantamount to making sure they are safe," she said.

Government previously criticized over directives to staff

The Alberta government's direction to staff near the beginning of the pandemic drew heavy criticism.

In mid-March, AUPE and Opposition NDP said the government was needlessly endangering the health of public servants and flouting health officials' advice by directing staff to report to work unless they were showing cold or flu symptoms or had child-care responsibilities.

After Premier Jason Kenney declared a state of public health emergency, executive council deputy minister Ray Gilmour said employees "should be prepared to start to work from home where operationally feasible."

More than 10 civil servants subsequently told CBC News their managers were slow to follow Gilmour's directive, non-essential staff were still being told to come into the office, and there was no word on when work-from-home policies would be in place. They said the government was failing to heed its own advice to the public.

As workers prepare to go back, Gostola said the union will keep "an eye on the government that they are actually as an employer taking their proper steps to protect our workers in those sites."

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About the Author

Jennie Russell

Investigative reporter

Jennie Russell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Jennie specializes in accountability journalism and her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Contact Jennie at jennie.russell@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @jennierussell_.