The province of Manitoba is gradually heeding the advice of its chief public health officer and asking more civil servants to work from home, but union leaders say the government can do a better job at getting people out of its offices.
In early November, 800 additional civil servants headed home for work, a government spokesperson said on Wednesday.
The number of government employees at home totalled 4,200 as of mid-November, out of a 12,000-strong civil service.
Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin has pleaded with employers to let their staff work from home whenever possible. His calls have grown louder as Manitoba embarked on a near-lockdown last month to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But the union representing the majority of Manitoba’s civil servants say too many — about two-thirds — are still going into their workplaces.
“They’re definitely not leading by example, that’s for sure,” said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.
“When we have the ability to work from home and the government itself is not keeping its own workforce at home where it can, that is definitely not setting the best example,” she said.
MGEU has filed a grievance with the province, arguing the “employer has failed to follow the clear and consistent advice” that encourages remote working.
Union members say some managers aren’t getting the message, Gawronsky said.
In many cases, supervisors made allowances for staff to work from home, either fully or partially. Some managers refused, however, even though when employees could work from home, she said.
About half of civil service can’t work from home
Gawronsky wrote to Minister of Central Services Reg Helwer to urge more managers to follow Roussin’s advice.
“I’m asking the minister to ensure that all that can work from home are given the ability and permission to be able to do so,” she said.
She’s encouraged by the bump in remote work reported in November, an increase from the 3,400 staff who were at home in late October.
“I believe that the numbers have increased slightly, but there’s a long way to go.”
Half of Manitoba’s civil service, around 6,000 employees, must be physically at their workplaces, such as those working in corrections, health institutions and social services, the province said by email.
That leaves around 6,000 employees who could presumably work remotely, but the spokesperson said that isn’t actually possible in every situation.
“Not every job can be done from home. Not everyone wants to work from home,” the email said.
The government added that every manager has been told to consider remote work for their staff when possible.
Roussin was asked on Tuesday how private industry can be expected to follow pleas to allow working from home, when some say adherence from government is lacking.
“I don’t think that’s … a question for me,” Roussin said. “I think my message is clear, and that is that when possible, when you can achieve what you need to achieve at home, then employers should strongly consider doing that.”
Those pleas to work from home are backed by science, said Syed Sattar, a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa who was one of the first researchers to explore how the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads indoors.
Early research focused on the dangers of large droplets landing on surfaces, but Sattar notes the risk of smaller droplets that linger in the air needs to be taken seriously.
He describes airborne spread as an “environmental equalizer.”
“You may choose not to drink the water there, you may choose not to drink or eat the food there,” Sattar said.
“But if you are in a setting where there are other people in that same surrounding, you cannot avoid inhaling the same air.”
He said good air ventilation, mask-wearing and having fewer people in a confined setting are all helpful measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, but transmission is still possible.
Crowns, city make accommodations
Manitoba’s Crown corporations say they’re doing their part to prevent that spread.
Manitoba Public Insurance has roughly 70 per cent of its staff, which numbered 1,808 in the last fiscal year, working from home.
The remaining staff are required to go to work, typically those meeting customers, and staff working in IT.
Roughly 650 of Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries staff, who normally work out of the corporate offices, are based at home. There are also 1,400 staff working at Liquor Marts, 150 staff at various properties and 1,100 still laid off due to the pandemic.
Manitoba Hydro had 1,460 employees at home full-time and 640 staff splitting their time between home and their workplace as of October. There are several hundred front-line workers dispatched from home when needed.
The rest of Hydro’s 5,000-person workforce ensures electricity and natural gas operations keep running, the company said.
As well, the City of Winnipeg says 1,852 of its annual average of 10,600 employees are staying at home.
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