COVID-19: Civil servants say Alberta government slow to develop work-from-home policies

Even after the Alberta government’s announcement that staff should prepare to start working remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, civil servants are saying their managers are sending conflicting messages and have been slow to develop work-from-home policies that would protect public health.

On Tuesday, the Opposition NDP and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said the government was needlessly endangering its employees by directing them to report to work in person unless they showed cold or flu symptoms or had child-care responsibilities.

Later that afternoon, Premier Jason Kenney declared a state of public health emergency. In a follow-up email to all government staff, executive council deputy minister Ray Gilmour said employees should “be prepared to start to work from home where operationally feasible.” 

But more than 10 civil servants told CBC News their managers are being slow to follow Gilmour’s directive. They said non-essential staff who can work remotely are being told to come into the office, and that there is still no word on when work-from-home policies will be in place.

The employees reached out in confidence, fearing reprisal if they expressed their concerns publicly.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represents government employees, said it has heard the same concerns from its members.

“Messaging is fractured, it is inconsistent between departments and even between work sites in the same departments,” union president Guy Smith said.

He said AUPE is trying to get the public service commissioner’s office to send consistent direction about what the government expects from staff.

“Those that can work from home should be working from home, and should be given the tools, the equipment, and the direction to do so,” Smith said.

“That has not happened and yes, workers are going into work when they probably shouldn’t.”

122 cases and rising in Alberta

Over the past few weeks, public health officials in Alberta and around the world have repeatedly stressed the importance of social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Limiting contact with others where possible is also critical to protecting older adults and those with compromised immune systems who are more likely to face severe health consequences — including death — if they contract the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 122 Albertans had tested positive for COVID-19, with officials warning the outbreak may not reach its peak in the province until mid-April.

“Though I know it is not possible for everyone, the ability to work from home is going to become more important for those in occupations where it is possible,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said earlier this week.

But civil servants expressed frustration with their managers’ responses, saying the government is failing to heed its own advice to the public.

In an email sent to all Alberta Energy staff Wednesday morning, deputy minister Grant Sprague said “our intent is to keep our offices open,” adding that “in this, however, we also need to be flexible and practical.”

Sprague referenced employees working from home, where feasible, in the context of those “experiencing childcare or public transit concerns.”

Alberta Energy is “taking a practical approach to considering how to have people work from home,” he said. “Employees looking for information on working remotely can discuss plans with their manager.”

Ongoing IT connectivity issues’

Shortly after Gilmour’s email Tuesday, deputy transportation minister Rae-Ann Lajeunesse told her ministry’s employees in an email that management teams would be developing plans over the next few days to “identify where we can support staff working from home.”

The following morning, she wrote that the ministry was working with IT staff to support employees who need to work remotely and to “resolve ongoing IT connectivity issues.” She said ministry staff had been asked to register for multi-factor authentication, a security mechanism employers often require for staff working remotely.

“We have taken this step to ensure we are prepared, should we start working from home where operationally feasible,” Lajeunesse said.

She said Alberta Transportation was waiting for the Public Service Commission to issue a government-wide policy on working from home.

No deadline for work-from-home policies

Public Service Commissioner Tim Grant declined an interview request. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Wilson Smith said “now more than ever, Albertans depend on their government.

“This is especially true for frontline services, as well as many involved in responding to the health and economic effects of the pandemic.”

Smith said “wherever possible, plans are being developed and implemented within each work area to allow for a greater number of employees to work from home while continuing to deliver critical services to Albertans,” adding that approaches vary across ministries because of the different services they provide.

There is no deadline for when all government ministries must enact policies that allow as many employees to work from home as possible, he said.

Smith so far has not responded to the issue raised in the email from Lajeunesse that said the Public Service Commission is responsible for issuing a government-wide directive.

The AUPE’s Guy Smith said the lack of a deadline for work-from-home policies is troubling.

He said he understands that the pandemic and its effects are unprecedented, but the government needs to work quickly to protect the health of its workers and the rest of the public.

“All governments should have in their back pocket some level of emergency or crisis response to at least work from,” he said.

“Yes, each crisis will be different but usually there is a framework, a contingency plan in place,” he said, adding it would be very concerning if the government was “building the airplane while we are at 40,000 feet.”

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