Workers scrambling after company gives just 2 days notice to return to in-person work full-time

Workers are scrambling to arrange things like child care after they were told on Thursday they must return to in-person work five days a week starting Monday. The union believes it's in retaliation for its rejection of the company's latest offer during collective bargaining, bur management denies that.

Union says move comes after it rejected collective agreement proposal but company denies that

A snapshot of Candu Energy Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. Workers were told Thursday they must all return to in-person work full time on Monday. (Google Maps)

Hundreds of employees at Candu Energy Inc. were given less than two working days notice to return to the office full-time, five days a week, according to the union that represents engineers, scientists and technical and administrative staff.

"There was no rationale, there was no explanation provided why they flipped from, 'It's going to be gradual, it's going to be hybrid,'" to everyone returning five days a week on Monday, said Denise Coombs, staff representative with the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates (SPEA).

CBC News spoke to four employees at Candu Energy Inc., located in Mississauga, Ont., who confirmed they received the notice through an internal memo last Thursday afternoon. They say they were previously told that likely wouldn't happen until September, and even then, it would be under a hybrid model.

The decision comes amid a dispute between the union and parent company SNC-Lavalin. The two sides are negotiating a collective agreement with some workers now on strike. Coombs says this policy change came after the union rejected the company's latest offer.

"It's very clear that what happened here — they wanted to force us to accept an offer," said Coombs.

The company denies the allegation, saying "flexible work arrangements" are part of the negotiations. Coombs says talks between the union and management will continue Wednesday with a government-appointed conciliation officer. 

While companies have leeway in how they get their employees back to work, some experts say the rules are vague and can be a legally grey area. It's an issue that could become more common in Ontario as workplaces grapple with mandatory return-to-work policies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

'Completely inappropriate'

The announcement has left many parents who work at the company scrambling to find child-care options.

Elena Zanina, a mother of four with two young children who's worked at the company for 15 years, says she was already going in on certain days, but is now struggling to find daycare on the other days for her three-year-old son. The stress, she says, is taking a toll:

"I wasn't able to work the second half of the day on Thursday. I took Friday half day sick … just thinking, 'What to do with kids?'" said Zanina.

Elena Zanina pictured with her son Artem. Zanina has worked as a retube simulation analyst at Candu Energy Inc. for 15 years. (Submitted by Elena Zanina)

"I want to return back to work full time because I think it's OK. But having just one-and-a-half working days before we are going back to work — it's completely inappropriate."

Aram Babayan knows that stress all too well: his wife is on a business trip this week, leaving him alone to care for his kids.

"With a lot of people that's a major problem, because at this late stage in the school year, it's not really possible to go and look for the before- and after-school care," said Babayan, who works in materials engineering with Candu Energy Inc.

He says he asked the company to push back the return for an extra week, but says he was told he'd have to take it as vacation.

"This 180 degree turn of now of 100 per cent coming back to work full time is sort of like a bully move, I would say, just to get us to agree to some substandard contract," said Smeena Qazi, an engineer

Rules 'unclear,' employment lawyer says

Some experts say companies can order their employees back to work on the grounds they can't conduct their business as usual.

But the rules aren't always clear, one lawyer told CBC News.

Lawyer Christopher Achkar says the laws are relatively vague when it comes to mandating employees to return to in-person work full-time. (Submitted by Christopher Achkar)

"It will depend on a case-by-case basis. It will depend on the workforce, the employer, who they're requiring to come back," said Christopher Achkar, principal employment lawyer with Achkar Law.

Achkar said generally employers must give sufficient notice, and that two business days is not enough.

"With the timing of the collective bargaining, it's hard not to see the employer here flexing muscles through this move."

Company responds

In a statement to CBC News, SNC-Lavalin confirmed the notice was issued to employees of Candu Energy Inc. on Thursday, effective Monday, but didn't respond to questions about why such short notice was given. 

The company said due to the nature of the work, "hundreds" of employees have continued to work in-person through the pandemic. The company told CBC News it has been encouraging employees to return for several months and that it has been clear about its intent to bring all employees back.

Candu Energy Inc. is a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin. The company told CBC News it has been encouraging employees to return for several months and that it has been clear about its intent. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

In response to allegations the decision is a retaliatory move against the union for its rejection of its offer of a collective agreement, SNC-Lavalin said Candu Energy Inc. has mandated that all employees — including those who aren't unionized —  return to the workplace on June 6, 2022. 

"We are currently renegotiating our collective agreements; flexible work arrangements are part of that discussion. Our objective is to reach a fair, equitable and competitive agreement which will allow us to move forward."


Farrah Merali is a reporter with CBC Toronto with a passion for politics and urban health issues. She previously worked as the early morning reporter at CBC Vancouver. Follow her at @FarrahMerali