The B.C. government is making it easier for its employees to work remotely, a change that’s being applauded by the BCGEU but could affect downtown outlets that rely on workers’ business.
The head of the B.C. public service informed employees in a memo this week that with about half the public service already working remotely, the province is expanding that option and opening job postings to people in any community in the province where a hiring ministry has an office.
“Embracing flexible work is an essential part of the future of the public service, particularly in attracting and retaining talented employees who reflect the rich diversity of B.C.,” Shannon Salter, deputy minister to the premier, wrote in the memo.
The provincial government had previously been phasing people back into offices, although deadlines were pushed back several times.
In contrast, in December, the federal government said its employees will be required to work in the office at least two to three days a week as of March 31.
Salter noted that more than half of provincial employees now have approved telework agreements. Over the three years of the pandemic, the government has learned that flexible work can have positive effects on health and well-being and result in higher employee engagement, she wrote.
The memo says ministries are strongly encouraged to expand adoption of flexible work where it makes sense. “Ministries that have taken a more cautious approach to flexible work to date are encouraged to pursue expansion where possible and appropriate.”
Effective April 1, all job postings will be open to people in any B.C. community where the hiring ministry has an office and any restrictions on that will require deputy minister approval.
Recognizing that not all ministries have offices outside Victoria and Vancouver, “we are working to expand capacity in the regions,” said Salter.
Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said members have concerns about jobs moving away from the region, “as there is a long-standing synergy” between local businesses and the workers that support them.
“The public sector is a cornerstone of our economy and communities depend on that stability,” said Williams.
Mike Murphy, owner of Ten Acres Group of Restaurants, said the expansion of remote work for B.C. government employees will have a minor effect on his businesses, but he imagines it will be a setback for coffee shops and takeout places that rely on government office workers.
“I also feel it takes away from the vibrancy and feel of downtown,” Murphy said.
Mike Gonzalez of the Old Spaghetti Factory, kitty corner from the B.C. legislature, said vacant offices and the option to work from home is “a reality we — all our businesses and industry — need to live with.
“How much of this has had an impact on us and our industry is hard to quantify with so many other variables and factors facing every sector across the board,” said Gonzalez.
While increased foot-traffic counts suggest there has been a recovery in some areas of downtown, that may not be the case in other areas, he said.
B.C. General Employees’ Union president Stephanie Smith said during contract talks last year, the union requested “expanded, fair, consistent application” of remote work policies in the public service but the provincial government wasn’t interested.
“This was a huge deal for our members,” said Smith. “So quite frankly, for the new deputy minister to the premier to come out so quickly in her new mandate saying that flexible work has to be embraced by the public service in order to recruit and retain talented workers, I couldn’t agree more.”
Smith said the memo suggests the default for managers now is to “make it work” where feasible for employees who want to work remotely.
The union is now waiting to see how the program rolls out, hoping it’s applied fairly between ministries and even within ministries.
If the arrangement doesn’t work, “we want transparency about why it won’t work,” said Smith, who also wants to know how employees can appeal if their applications are denied.
“We would have loved to have been able to sit down with the deputy minister and her team and and talk about this before the announcement was made, but we’re going to be asking those questions regardless,” she said.
The public service includes management and the Professional Employers’ Association.
The BCGEU estimates about half its members in the public service would not be eligible for remote work given the nature of their jobs, including corrections officers, wildfire fighters, liquor and cannabis retail staff, frontline client service positions or field workers in various ministries.
Salter, in her memo, wrote that while there is much more to discuss about flexible work, she is “confident this is a positive step in our ongoing journey to be a more modern and competitive employer.”
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