Downtown business owners await federal workers as unions fight return-to-office plans

Published Jan. 3, 2023 6:36 p.m. ET

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Federal public workers will be required to return to the office part-time in two weeks, but one of the unions fighting the hybrid work model has backed away from bargaining and is talking about a strike.

The holiday rush has ended at Le Casablanca restaurant in Ottawa’s ByWard Market. This is now the time of year when owner Mohamed El Griene would rely on government workers for revenue.

"It’s very tough sometimes it hurts," says El Griene. "We miss them too. It's like a family when you see the same face every day. They make you happy, you make them happy ... I have no family here, I am just by myself."

On Jan. 16, federal public service employees will begin to return to the office up to three days per week. The mandate, announced by The Treasury Board last month, is to be fully implemented by the end of March.

While the move is a potential boon for surrounding businesses, there is pushback.

A recent survey of nearly 14,000 public service workers, conducted by Ottawa-based Agile Work Evolutions Inc., revealed close to 75 per cent of government employees would rather work from home.

Marc Brière, national president for the Union of Taxation Employees, which represents some 37,000 workers with Canada Revenue Agency, says it is unnecessary for the majority of employees to return to the office.

"We've been able to do our jobs and we've been able to do even more than that, we helped the government deliver the emergency benefits," he says. "It got really tough in the pandemic, we had people burning out because they were working overtime to help out."

Brière says UTE members have been working without a contract and have recently broke away from bargaining.

"We still have no wage offer on the table from the employer, which I find very insulting and unacceptable," says Brière, adding there has been little movement as well on a refusal to budge on another key issue, a remote work proposal.

"The government doesn't have a case. They're not telling us why we’re forced arbitrarily to go back to work ... nothing is preventing us from conducting strike votes and it's not a question of ‘if’, it's a question of when we start to conduct strike votes and it's coming fast."

Other public service unions have voiced similar sentiments, but Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade, says some form of a return to work is needed in order to develop Ottawa's growing economy.

"There's a lot going on right now that we cannot control in our economy and so when we know that return to office in some form is going to be some part of the puzzle. It's time to move forward on that so we can build the blocks around it," says Ching.

"We need to support those businesses as much as we can, and it's not just on the public sector it's on all of us in Ottawa to think about how we can support local businesses because it's going to affect all of us in some way. The fact is the downtown core is one of the biggest assets we have for our visitor economy, and our visitor economy is critically important to every other aspect of our economy in Ottawa."

When El Griene's family of federal workers returns to Le Casablanca, he says he will serve his fresh Moroccan fare with a smile and a discount.

"A discount to all of them just to make them happy and they'll make me happy too." 

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