OTTAWA – The federal government is easing COVID-19 restrictions for public servants, allowing a full return of workers to office buildings that largely sat empty for more than two years.

The new health guidelines will allow a return to offices at full occupancy with some preventative measures. The big change is employees don’t have to wear masks at their desks or in meetings as long as they can social-distance.

Dany Richard, a union president and co-chair of the joint union-management National Joint Council, said departments will be conducting pilot projects with the new guidelines in place.

He said departments are urging employees to come back to the office for a few days to “get a feel for it” after two years of working at home. Departments could adjust their return-to-office planning based on the feedback they get from employees, he added.

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Compared with other employers, the federal government has been slow in staging the return of workers to the office since the Omicron variant hit at Christmas and put return plans on hold.

The government loosened restrictions slightly in March, but employees still had to wear masks indoors, even when physically distancing and outdoors in crowded situations. Several executives, not authorized to speak publicly, said many people were reticent to return to the office because they found wearing a mask all day uncomfortable.

It’s expected that the return will be phased in through the summer with a big ramp-up by September. Richard said departments are aiming to have telework agreements with employees by the fall, which will lay out where they work, whether remotely or how many days a week they will be in the office.

Under the new guidelines, in-person client services can resume like normal as long as employees, clients, visitors and the public wear masks when interacting with each other indoors.

Another change is employees who have a close contact with COVID-19 can come to the office as long as they are symptom-free or have been told by public health officials that they do not need to quarantine. Anyone who tests positive or has symptoms should stay home for at least seven days and be symptom-free upon return.

Employees are also asked to wear N95 respirator or surgical masks indoors when it’s difficult to social distance, such as in elevators, entrances, hallways and stairways. Masking is not required when working outdoors. Departments are encouraged to continue to provide masks and foster a mask-friendly workplace so people feel comfortable wearing one when not required.

The screening and tracking of employees and visitors at the office are being discontinued in most places. Previously, those who were not fully vaccinated or had approved vaccine exemptions were screened and forced to take rapid tests to help prevent anyone with the virus from going to the office.

Departments are asked to keep signage warning those who are sick not to enter the workplace. Preventative measures, such as ventilation, cleaning and hand hygiene are still recommended.

These guidelines apply to departments in the core public service for which Treasury Board is the employer. More independent or separate agencies such as the Canada Revenue Agency, Parks Canada, and Canadian Food Inspection Agency, are encouraged to follow suit.

The guidelines are recommendations, not mandatory. Enforcement is up to deputy heads, who are responsible for the health and safety of their employees and the management of their organizations.

The government is shifting to a hybrid workforce, where employees work a mix of in the office and at home. How this unfolds is all over the map. Treasury Board has argued from the start that it can’t impose a one-size-fits-all approach for departments because they have unique mandates with workplaces as different as parks, boats, submarines, prisons or science laboratories.

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It’s led to a mishmash of approaches. Some employees are mandated to come back for two or three days; others get to choose with their managers. Unassigned seating is expected to be the norm in many departments – unless workers have a disability or are working every day at the office. Whether departments have the technology capacity and bandwidth to manage a workforce between home and office is still an issue. Many employees also took home their computer equipment, even their chairs, to work with, and that will have to be returned or replaced.

After two years, many public servants are entrenched in their preference to work from home and will resist going back to the office. Managers are braced for employees who want to work remotely to look for jobs with departments offering that.

The guidance, however, makes no mention of the government’s mandatory vaccination policy, the biggest prevention tool in the government’s layered approach to stop the spread of COVID-19 at work.

The government is reviewing the mandate, introduced last October, to decide whether to lift or extend it. The mandate requires all public and RCMP employees to prove they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face unpaid leave.

Today, more than 98 per cent of public servants are fully vaccinated. Vaccine mandates are also imposed on employees of federally regulated industries.

The unions have supported the vaccine mandate but are pressing for the unvaccinated to be allowed to return to work. They could be accommodated by testing or allowing them to work remotely.

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read more of Kathryn’s columns here.

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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