VICTORIA — B.C.’s largest employer, the provincial government, is pushing ahead with plans to have employees return to their workplaces, even as the number of COVID-19 cases spike and health officials crack down on private gatherings.
The province’s 31,000 civil servants have started phasing back to office work after the government’s internal Public Service Agency issued new COVID-19 response guidelines on Oct. 8, directing most employees to plan to return to their worksites on at least a part-time basis.
The government confirmed Tuesday that back-to-work directive has not changed, despite Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s warning that virus cases are rising sharply. Henry issued a new order Monday that limits the size of gatherings inside private homes to an immediate household plus six others, and warned she expects everyone to take extra precautions, including wearing masks in public places, to try and contain the pandemic’s second wave.
“Every time the PHO (provincial health officer) comes out with direction, we seek clarification to ensure we are still within the bounds of what the PHO is instructing British Columbians to do,” Okenge Yuma Morisho, the deputy minister who oversees the public service, said in an interview Tuesday.
“Based on that feedback loop, we are of the view that we can continue to implement the return to workplaces in an iterative and gradual way.”
The government’s back-to-work plan describes balancing the risk of virus transmission with the need to restore some of the benefits of interacting and collaborating in the workplace.
Many civil servants have been working from home since March, but others, such as those running public service counters or handling essential duties, have stayed in physical worksites.
Not everyone is required to return, because some people have legitimate medical reasons to continue remote work, said Yuma Morisho. The current plan is for a part-time schedule, meaning offices will still have physical distancing space and cleaning protocols, he said.
Still, the government’s push to return tens of thousands of workers back to their physical offices at the same time Henry is appealing for those workers to strictly limit the number of visitors in their homes, may prove a confusing message for Premier John Horgan and his newly re-elected NDP government to defend publicly.
The back-to-work directive came during the election campaign, without Horgan’s approval. He told Postmedia News during a mid-campaign interview that he would decide whether government employees should continue returning to their offices once the election concluded and he was properly briefed by senior officials. Horgan returned to work in Victoria on Monday.
Yuma Morisho said a part-time return to the office for some employees could produce mental health benefits because it allows them to restart social and professional relationships. It could also benefit restaurants, coffee shops and businesses in Victoria and Vancouver that depend upon government office workers to survive, he said.
How many government workers have returned, and how many are still at home, is unclear. Yuma Morisho said the numbers were not available, but that estimates for his own staff within the Public Service Agency are roughly 65 per cent of employees will return to work either full or part-time.
Not all government employees are thrilled with the idea of returning to the office in-person, said Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government Services Employees’ Union.
“What we are hearing from our members is the full spectrum,” she said. “We have some members excited to go back … but we also have members that are very concerned, and like all of us are looking at the numbers and may have very personal reasons for why they are concerned.”
Ultimately, management, and not the union, controls whether to recall staff back to offices, said Smith.
“That’s a decision out of our control,” she said.
In Fraser Health, where B.C.’s COVID-19 outbreak remains the worst, health officials said Tuesday it is still safe for employees in general to return to work in-person where necessary.
“There have been exposures and possibly outbreaks in some office settings,” said chief medical health officer Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin.
“Generally, they are lower risk than some other settings, because all offices are expected to have a COVID safety plan in place that includes things like staying home when you’re ill, in some circumstances working from home, practising good personal hygiene and wearing a mask when social distancing is not possible.”