What the federal workers’ deal means for the future of remote work

Remote work was among the sticking points between the public workers and the federal government, but was left out of the new tentative agreement. "We haven't figured our way through this story yet," one expert said.

Ottawa commits to revising its work-from-home policy but keeps it out of tentative agreement

People walk in front of a building

The right to work from home was among the sticking points in the negotiations between the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the federal government.

The union is claiming a victory in the government agreeing to review remote work on a case-by-case basis, rather than applying a "one-size-fits-all" policy to federal workers.

But the updated policy was left out of the tentative agreement reached overnight Sunday.

Experts say the outcome reflects how our approach to remote work still needs to be fine-tuned as workers and their managers adapt to the post-pandemic era. Even so, it still represents a significant step that could have ripple effects in the private sector, they say.

"This isn't the sort of thing you can negotiate with a knife at your throat on either side," said economist Armine Yalnizyan.

A more extensive review of remote work policies makes sense, given the complexity of the issue and the urgency of the current labour dispute, she said.

"This is a brand-new story for human resources in the public and the private sector," said Yalnizyan, who is also the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers.

"We haven't figured our way through this story yet."

Case-by-case basis

The tentative agreement covers more than 120,000 Treasury Board workers across the country. (Another 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers are still on strike).

According to the PSAC, the tentative agreement includes wage increases of 12.6 per cent compounded over four years, and a one-time, pensionable lump-sum payment of $2,500.

The dispute over remote work began when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted late last year.

The Treasury Board told employees they should return to the office for two to three days a week, starting in mid-January. That plan was fully implemented at the end of March.

The union had been fighting that plan and seeking to get remote work rights enshrined in their collective agreement. On that point, they were not successful.

Speaking with reporters Monday, Treasury Board president Mona Fortier described the new commitment regarding remote work as a "letter of intent outside the collective bargaining agreement."

She had previously drawn a "red line" on the issue, saying remote work should be allowed only with the approval of management.

Fortier also said Monday the government would begin revising its "directive on telework," a policy that has not been updated since 1993 — and that, for now, workers would be able to work from home three days a week where applicable.

For his part, Chris Aylward, PSAC's president, said the changes represent an improvement for workers, even if they aren't enshrined in the agreement.

He said managers would be required to assess requests for remote work on a case-by-case basis instead of by a group.

"There will be no more grandiose announcements about two or three days a week or anything like that," he said.

"It's got to be case-by-case, so every single member would have the right to ask for telework or remote work arrangement. If that's denied, that has to be provided in writing."

WATCH | Remote work arrangement a 'major gain,' union president says:

Remote work arrangement a 'major gain' for public servants, union president says

15 hours ago

Duration 0:48

PSAC national president Chris Aylward says his union made progress in getting an updated arrangement for remote work during negotiations with the federal government.

'A step forward'

Evaluating remote work requests on a case-by-case basis makes sense, given the quickly changing nature of work, said Jean-Nicolas Reyt, an assistant professor at McGill University who has studied the merits of remote work.

"If you're in an industry that you have to be working on premises, you have to go on premises, maybe you can do some training from home, but at the end of the day, it has to be a case-by-case basis," he said.

"If case by case means that a manager has a personal opinion about giving remote work to anybody or to everybody, then this is an issue. Because we already know that managers typically are against remote work because it makes their job a little bit different from what they're used to."

As for the private sector, history suggests advances made by public-sector employees do trickle down, Reyt said.

"I think all of these changes, they start with the federal government negotiating with their own employees, but if you look over the past 100 years that always permeates the entire economy like a few years later," he said, citing past advances in equal pay and parental leave.

Going forward, the decision on whether a federal employee can work remotely will no longer be up to management alone. Workers will have a say, even if they cannot file a grievance, said Barry Eidlin, an associate professor in McGill's department of sociology.

"I see this as opening for further discussion and evolution," he said.

"This question that the federal workers have been facing is a question that a lot of workers have been facing. The fact that they've won any kind of process — or have some sort of say — at least sets a precedent that other unions can discuss."


Benjamin Shingler


Benjamin Shingler is an investigative reporter with CBC in Montreal. He specializes in health and social issues, and previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Email him at benjamin.shingler@cbc.ca.

    With files from Kate McKenna

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