Saskatoon

Sask. NDP wants all non-essential Crown employees working from home

“More and more bodies are sending every non-essential worker home and that has to happen with the Crowns,” said opposition NDP leader Ryan Meili on Friday.

Employees at some Crown corporations still coming into work

An undated transmission electron micrograph of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus which causes COVID-19. (NIAID Integrated Research Facility/Reuters)

Saskatchewan's opposition NDP says its disappointing the Government of Saskatchewan isn't leading by example when it comes to allowing all non-essential Crown employees to work from home.

Earlier this week, CBC Saskatoon reported how numerous Crown corporations still have people coming into work and in some cases, like SGI and SaskTel, still have employees interacting with members of the public.

On Friday, opposition NDP leader Ryan Meili held a press conference calling on government to do more when it comes to the response to COVID-19. There, he said the government should be offering clear guidance to all of it's Crown employees, saying any non-essential workers should be at home.

"More and more bodies are sending every non-essential worker home and that has to happen with the Crowns," he said.
"It's actually disappointing that it's some of these agencies that have the direct connection to government that have been slower to have clarity, because those are the groups that should be role modelling."

On Friday, employees with numerous Crown Corporations, including the Workers Compensation Board, SaskTel, SGI and Innovation Place located on the University of Saskatchewan campus where the majority of students and staff are working remotely, had staff on site.

Ryan Meili held a virtual news conference from his home Friday. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

SGI said in a statement Friday that the safety of its employees, its customers and the general public is its first priority, with "limiting disruption for customers" being the second priority.

"We continue to assess and prioritize the needs of employees​ ​and customers," the statement said.

"SGI is ​in the process of determining options for reducing foot traffic or closing customer-facing services and only accepting business online​, over the phone or by appointment."

SGI noted it's making case-by-case decisions for employees when it comes to working from home.
The Crown corporation also said it has reinforced with its employees they have the right to refuse service to any customers they deem unsafe.

As part of the emergency declaration, all Saskatchewan ministries, agencies and Crown corporations will implement a phased-in work-from-home policy that comes into effect on March 23 to non-essential employees. This means any employees able to work from home should do so immediately.

An Innovation Place spokesperson said most employees would be working from home as of Monday.

"Several employees of Innovation Place are required to be at the work site in order to keep our facilities operational.  Special considerations are being made to ensure their safety," the spokesperson said via email.

Employees at several Crown corporations in Saskatchewan, including SGI, are still working on site. (Tyler Pidlubny/CBC)

Some staff at the Workers Compensation Board were given a $10 gift certificate by executive and senior leadership as a gesture of appreciation for working with them "through this fluid and fast-moving situation."

One Crown employee, who isn't being named because they're not authorized to speak to the media, called the gesture "ridiculous" saying they feel the employer doesn't care about its staff.

"10 bucks isn't worth doing more to flatten the curve," they noted to CBC.

However, Bob Bymoen, president of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union, which represents WCB workers, said he was told by the employer the gift card was offered as a gesture of thanks.

Bymoen said he's been told by the WCB it's doing everything it can to keep workers safe.

"This whole thing is moving really fast and I've got to trust that the Workers Compensation Board is moving as quickly as it can to accommodate workers working from home," he said.

He noted in many cases, these employees are working with confidential and personal information, so it's important those working from home are doing so in a secure fashion.

CBC Saskatoon requested an interview with an official from the Workers Compensation Board, but a statement was provided instead. In the statement, the WCB noted since Sunday, there have been "extremely limited and controlled access" at WCB locations, but offices officially closed to the public Friday.

Bob Bymoen, president of the SGEU. (CBC)

"Staff have been instructed to serve our vulnerable customers by phone and by email and avoid in-person contact," said the statement. "Public messages to our customers have instructed them to contact us by email and phone and not to come to our offices."

The WCB says it already has a number of staff working from home and remaining staff are "preparing to work from home." The statement also indicated that WCB staff have been "wonderful" in working to ensure WCB customers have the information and access they need. 

Some labour experts say the government needs to do better in ensuring messaging around work-from-home is consistent across the board. Charles Smith is an associate professor of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan's St. Thomas More College.

Smith, whose area of expertise focuses on labour politics, says the public sector should be sending out consistent messaging for non-essential employees across the board.

"The inconsistency and the scrambling raised a lot of red flags for employees and that could lead to employees being unnecessarily put at risk," he said.

"That's a big concern and that's something that needs to be addressed right up the hierarchy, right up to the premier's office when it comes to public sector workers in Saskatchewan."

Saskatchewan remains under a state of emergency with 20 cases of COVID-19, with 12 presumptive and eight confirmed.

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