Is remote work a perk or a right? Depends who you ask
Federal worker strike entering 11th day on Saturday
It's not surprising that working from home has become a major issue in the Treasury Board of Canada's negotiations with over 100,000 striking federal workers.
What's less obvious, however, is how a potential contract granting Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) members the right to work from home if they wanted to might reshape offices across the country.
That's because the union is fighting for a perk not everyone can enjoy, observers say.
"What about those people who don't have the luxury to even work one day a week from home? What about teachers? What about nurses? What about doctors?" said Linda Duxbury, a professor in management and strategy at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business.
"There's a whole range of professions [for whom] this discussion is meaningless."
Private sector employers with staff hoping to work remotely are watching alongside other federal bargaining units to see how the final deal between the Treasury Board and PSAC shakes out.
"Nobody wants to see the Treasury Board cave to PSAC's demand to enshrine work-from-home in the collective agreement," said Patrick Groom, a lawyer who represents a mix of private and public sector employers.
Once something goes in a contract, "it becomes extremely hard to negotiate out," he said.
Working from home a top strike issue
It's unclear how many people on the picket lines have been working from home, the office or a mix of the two.
CBC has asked the union for those figures.
But Duxbury said less than 40 per cent of Canada's college- or university-educated workforce is working remotely.
By making work-from-home a top strike issue — alongside wage increases, contracting and seniority during layoffs — PSAC risks alienating some members and faces an uphill climb gaining the wider public's sympathy, Duxbury said.
"Are they using it as a way to get bargaining on other things that they really care about?" she said. "Or have they got a little bit of tunnel vision on the remote work piece, and they're not really realizing that the majority of Canadians can't do it?"
Only a third of 120,000 striking PSAC members cast votes calling for a work stoppage, Duxbury added.
A divisive issue
Groom said one of his clients (not a federal department) is dealing with a bargaining unit made up of more than 500 technicians who work in the field and just under 200 office staff who can work from home.
While the group hasn't taken a strike vote yet, remote work has become a wedge issue, he said.
"Is that over-500-person group willing to go on strike to defend the privilege to work from home for less than 200 administrators? Frankly, I don't believe so," Groom said.
"But it is the same question I think every employer is asking themselves ... is the [PSAC deal] going to [make remote work] an expectation? Or is this going to remain a privilege?"
Philip Cross, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, said some in the private sector view PSAC's demands for both higher wages and work-from-home flexibility with incredulity.
"[They] just go, 'These people are on a completely different planet,'" Cross said.
Some private employers have told workers who want to stay home they will have to take a pay cut due to a perceived risk of lower productivity, he said.
A mental health issue
Sylvia Fuller comes at things from a different perspective.
A labour markets expert and sociology professor at the University of British Columbia with an immunosuppressed partner, Fuller has worked from home since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's not just a convenience issue for people. It is a human rights issue, insofar as it maps onto folks with some disabilities [and] health conditions [who really need] that flexibility," she said.
Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said earlier this week that telework emerged as a necessity of the pandemic. But as Fuller notes, that pandemic isn't over.
"[There's] a lot of people who are quietly still not wanting to get infected and wanting to protect their health and that of their family," she said.
Not to say it isn't nice to go on a midday rock-climbing break, as she planned to do Thursday.
"That's actually the time when I get my best ideas," Fuller said of physical activity, adding that she'd make up the time later by working in the evening or on the weekend — the tradeoff for feeling "refreshed."
Mental health is "a big reason" why people don't want to give up working from home, she said.
'We can handle the work fine'
Boris Rebinczak can relate. A federal worker for almost 20 years, he currently helps administer military pensions at Public Services and Procurement Canada but is among the wide majority of workers who walked off the job.
Rebinczak worked from home three days a week, a schedule he said reduced his stress compared to commuting every day.
"Your sleep can be affected if you were to go into the office all the time because I generally have to be in there for 8 a.m.," he said.
And while sometimes staying home made him feel "claustrophobic a bit" and even depressed at times, Rebinczak said he wants the flexibility PSAC is demanding.
"We can handle the work fine the way it is."
So what now?
The federal government presented a counter-offer to PSAC covering the vast majority of striking workers on Friday afternoon, although where things stand on work-from-home is unclear.
Fortier didn't mention the issue when last scrummed by media on Thursday, after having stated in an open letter to union members earlier in the week that the Treasury Board was prepared to review the current directive on teleworking.
She conceded the policy had not been reassessed "after the pandemic."
Duxbury called Fortier's last update on the issue "word salad" and criticized both sides for treating the issue too generally in their public remarks.
In a statement almost a week ago, PSAC national president Chris Aylward said the two sides had made "some headway" on language around remote work.
The Treasury Board said there would be no further comment on Friday, while the union said talks would stretch on into the weekend.