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Some civil servants worried about return to office amid COVID-19 surge, union says

The union representing tens of ­thousands of public servants says it’s been contacted by dozens of ­provincial government employees anxious about returning to the office amid rising COVID-19 case numbers.
The Ministry of Health building in Victoria. Darren Stone, Times Colonist

The union representing tens of ­thousands of public servants says it’s been contacted by dozens of ­provincial government employees anxious about returning to the office amid rising COVID-19 case numbers.

“We’re hearing from members every day,” said Stephanie Smith, president of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union. “People are seeing those ­numbers rising and it’s causing a great deal of concern for members.”

On Oct. 8, the B.C. Public Service Agency announced it was phasing out work-from-home options and told employees to prepare for a return to the office, in some cases on a part-time basis. Many civil servants began ­returning to the office in November, but each ministry or department appears to be taking its own approach on setting a deadline for when to return and for how many days a week.

Smith said “strong measures” need to be taken to stop COVID-19 case counts from rising, including continuing to allow people to work remotely to reduce numbers of people in offices.

The return-to-work plan was ­suspended for public servants in the Lower Mainland, where the bulk of the COVID-19 cases are concentrated.

One Victoria-based Ministry of Health employee returned to the office on Tuesday and was concerned to see many people not wearing masks while in common areas away from their desks.

“Case numbers are going up and working from home was going fine,” said the woman, who did not want her name used for fear of workplace reprisals. “So I don’t understand the pressure to get everyone back into a building.”

Smith said many union members are confused about workplace safety policies, particularly around masks.

“While we’ve heard from ­[provincial health officer] Dr. Bonnie Henry that [masks] should be a part of the safety plan; when it remains optional, that becomes confusing for people,” Smith said. “We know there are differences between an order and a very strong recommendation. We feel like we’re past the point of strong recommendation. We need orders.”

The BCGEU requires all of its employees to wear masks in any office common areas.

The Public Service Agency’s ­question and answer sheet on the return-to-office policy said each workplace sets its own safety plan, including its mask policy.

“In an office setting or a work site where all sick employees are instructed to not attend, and the employer has implemented COVID-19 safety controls, the risk of exposure is much lower,” the agency said.

The information sheet said non-medical masks alone will not prevent the spread of COVID-19, and ­measures such as frequent hand washing and physical distancing are the best way to prevent infection.

Smith, who is immune-­compromised, said she can understand employees’ worry about returning to work if they or someone in their household is high-risk. She said anyone who needs accommodation for health reasons should contact their union representative for ­support.

The Public Service Agency said ministries have put in place measures and phased plans that allow employees to return to their workplaces, including physical distancing and hygiene measures. “This does require us to maintain a reduced-occupation capacity in most workplaces, which is why we are asking employees to return on a part-time basis at this time,” the agency said.

It said it will continue to adapt its approach in keeping with direction from health officials, and employees who need accommodation due to health concerns are being dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Many of the approximately 35,000 provincial public servants have safely remained in their regular offices full-time during the pandemic, the agency said.

“The provincial health officer has noted that we will be living with COVID-19 for many months to come, and so it’s important that we adapt in ways that balance continuing to minimize transmission of the virus with the need to restore some of the benefits of interacting and collaborating in the workplace,” it said in a statement.

Before the policy was announced, the Downtown Victoria Business Association had been calling on the province to encourage public sector workers to return to offices to reinvigorate the economy, hoping it would boost business to struggling downtown cafés and shops.

The Finance Ministry previously told the Times Colonist the province has about 13,000 employees in the capital region, many of whom are based in downtown office buildings.

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