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'Lives have changed': Federal workers in Greater Victoria resist mandate to return to office

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Federal government employees in Greater Victoria and across the country will be mandated to return to the office for at least two to three days a week starting Jan. 16. By March 31, the hybrid work model will be fully implemented.

“This is very good news for our restaurants and our retailers,” said Jeff Bray, CEO of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

When the pandemic hit, many office workers began working from home. With 4,000 federal employees working in the capital region, that had a devastating impact on businesses.

“Some of them just didn’t survive because there were no customers,” said Bray. “For others, they’ve had to reduce their hours.”

“You now see a lot of restaurants not open for lunch.”

A recent survey of nearly 14,000 public service workers revealed a majority of them would rather work from home.

“There’s a lot of people whose lives have changed significantly since the pandemic,” said Jamey Mills, regional executive vice-president with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Mills says members have given up childcare, eldercare, and often sold vehicles that were no longer needed when they stopped commuting into the office.

Workers were told on Dec. 15 of the upcoming changes.

“There’s a lot of mitigating circumstances that are going to make this abrupt transition really difficult,” said Mills.

The union is currently in collective bargaining and has now filed a statutory freeze complaint against the employer with the Canadian Industrial Relations Board.

“We’re in collective bargaining. You can’t change those conditions unless it’s mutually agreed upon,” said Mills.

Those negotiations, which began in the summer of 2021, are at an impasse. The union isn’t ruling out a strike vote if an agreement can’t be met.

“I think from the federal government’s point of view, the idea is that they want employees back to work to build that sense of team,” said Mark Colgate, a professor at the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria.

Colgate says the hybrid work mandate is about rebuilding connections in the workplace.

“By mandating two to three days a week, they think they can start rebuilding those teams again,” said Colgate.

Downtown business owners want to see workers once again filling federal buildings in Victoria's core.

“Those workers are critical to our sub-economy here in the downtown,” said Bray.

The union says the majority of its members want the opposite and would like to see some sort of formal policy to allow employees to continue to work from home.

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