North

Government employees working from home will start returning: N.W.T. minister

Minister Caroline Wawzonek said in a letter to employees dated July 10, and posted on the government website, that they'll start staggering employees' return over the next four to six weeks.

Government will stagger the return over the next 4 to 6 weeks

Minister Caroline Wawzonek said in a letter to employees dated July 10 that the government will start staggering their return over the next four to six weeks. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The N.W.T.'s finance minister said government workers who have been working from home will start returning to work in the next few weeks.

Like many other offices and businesses, the government sent most of its non-essential workers home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Earlier this month the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce spoke out about how that was negatively impacting downtown businesses like restaurants and cafés that rely on government workers' foot traffic. 

Minister Caroline Wawzonek said in a letter to employees dated July 10, and posted on the government website, that they'll start staggering their return over the next four to six weeks.

The territory has been in Phase 2 of its Emerging Wisely plan for several weeks, and about 60 per cent of workers are already back in the office. Wawzonek said officials have been developing plans for several weeks to bring the remaining employees back.

"I have been very proud of the dedication and commitment I have witnessed by public servants during what has been a very tumultuous and difficult time," she said.

The return to work will begin with offices that have seen an interruption in service, and offices that can comply with physical distancing, hand washing and other requirements laid out by the chief public health officer.

'Bringing back the downtown core'

Jenni Bruce, President of the NWT Chamber of Commerce, said she was pleased to hear government workers will be heading back to the office. 

"We're pretty optimistic to see they listened," Bruce said. "It'll just be great to see them in their office and bringing back the downtown core."

Bruce co-chairs a council of business people and government officials that advises the government on how to help the economy recover from the blow of lockdowns associated with COVID-19.

She said with the last confirmed case of the disease months ago, business owners think the government should be reopening the economy faster than it is.

"We anticipate government can operate slowly, but we feel this is urgent; if not heading to urgent, it's urgent already. [The] private sector needs to be able to bounce back."

She said while some industries have been booming — like retail, thanks to people choosing to support local — hospitality in particular has taken a hit with no travellers coming in.

"I don't even want to think about where tourism is going to end up right now because it's not positive."

Some employees to stay home

Wawzonek acknowledged that some employees won't be able to return to work due to existing health issues putting them at increased risk, or because they have children at home.

"These employees will be permitted to continue to work from home until their circumstances change," she said.

Wawzonek said management teams need to consider and make plans for each worksite, and they'll have to file applications with the chief public health officer that outline what arrangements they've made to limit exposure to COVID-19.

"These applications will need to be reviewed and approved by the [chief public health officer] and the Department of Finance before remaining staff will be returned to each worksite," the letter said.

The minister said as those plans are approved and implemented, there will be a staggered return of employees.

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