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'Indefensible': Burnaby city staff speak out about ending work from home

City of Burnaby staff are speaking out as the municipality gradually moves to end its work-from-home option for all employees.
burnaby city hall
Burnaby City Hall.

City of Burnaby staff are speaking out as the municipality gradually moves to end its work-from-home option for all employees.

Some city staff already do not have the option to work from home after a summer that saw many staff on and off working from home to minimize the number of people in the office at any given time. For other staff, the option is coming to an end shortly, while yet more will see the option disappear later.

Staff had been given the option to work from home if, for instance, they had a slight cough but otherwise felt well enough to work. This would allow staff to avoid using sick days they wouldn’t normally use – or go without pay if they are out of sick days.

In an email, the City of Burnaby confirmed it is working to end its work-from-home policy.

“We have been returning staff back to work slowly, at differing times based on the safety plans in place,” said city spokesperson Chris Bryan. “Safety of our staff and the public is our priority.”

The change in policies has sparked confusion and frustration among employees who spoke to the NOW on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.

“I think they are doing a lot of good stuff as well, like they’re implementing masks, and there’s all the barriers being built” around workspaces, said one staff member working at city hall.

The worker also noted there can be some challenges to working from home, including some employees not having adequate computers to work from at home.

They said there had been rumours in August of ending work-from-home policies, but those had been snuffed out by senior management.

“So we kind of stopped worrying about it. And then three weeks or four weeks ago, they started talking about it again,” the staff member said.

“It’s not that I’m scared; it’s that I’m so confused as to why, when you have the ability to let us work from home, would you revoke it?”

The employee said the major concern for them is the lack of an option for people who show minor symptoms but are still able to work.

“Some people might choose, then, to come in when they’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just a little sore throat. It’s probably nothing.’ You have to make a choice that you didn’t have to make a couple of weeks ago,” they said.

The staff member said they haven’t felt like there has been a solid explanation for the change from management.

“A lot of people are really pissed, especially the ones with kids and stuff,” they said. “I don’t really know even where it’s coming from. It seems like everyone I’ve spoken to is like, ‘Why are they doing this?’”

The timing of the policy change is “indefensible,” said another staff member who reached out separately by email, noting the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the province in the last month or so. According to data from the B.C. CDC, while the province had commonly seen new cases in the single-digit range in late spring and early summer, those numbers have since risen to record levels.

That staff member cited concerns about the ability to keep a safe distance from coworkers. They noted that, while Plexiglas barriers have been set up at workspaces, they are still generally within two metres of one another.

The staff member echoed concerns about sick leave and the apparent lack of an explanation from senior management for the changes.

They also added concerns about whether a new policy around masks – which mandates masks in vehicles and facilities “where physical distancing is not possible and where engineered controls are not available” – will be tightly adhered to and enforced.

In its statement, the city said the move is part of its “broader program to restart our facilities and programs, as we seek to establish normalcy as much as possible during the pandemic.”

“For the public, most facilities and programs have restarted, operating in new ways to safeguard public health,” Bryan said.

“We understand there are varying levels of comfort among staff about returning to the office and, similar to our other facilities, have taken a number of steps to ensure safety and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”

Those steps include installing Plexiglas barriers to separate workspaces, limiting capacity in meeting rooms, opting for virtual meetings, implementing the new mask policy, enhancing cleaning protocols, providing sanitizing wipes and developing safety plans per WorkSafeBC.

“Over the past few months we have resumed visiting shops, services and restaurants and more recently, children have returned to school,” Bryan said.

“With each step there has been anxiety for many. In the coming days, the city will continue to monitor the situation, listen to staff and support them as much as possible through this transition.”

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