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Halifax businesses welcome more federal workers back to office buildings


Businesses in downtown Halifax are welcoming the possibility of more workers returning to office buildings, as Ottawa mandates its federal employees back to in-person work two to three times a week.

“It’s welcome news,” said Brady Muller, owner of Bird’s Nest Café and Catering on Barrington Street.

She said her business has done okay through the pandemic at a “survivable level” -- something she feels fortunate for -- but what she craves is consistency.

“It would be nice to have a more steady level of business throughout the week. It helps us know what to prepare. It helps to provide full-time hours for staff,” Muller said.

“It’s not the same business that we were used to before the pandemic, now that people have been able to choose to work a hybrid model and some time at home.”

Paul MacKinnon, CEO of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, says his organization is happy to see federal workers back in the city’s core.

 “Hopefully some of them are happy to get back in the office as well. I’m sure there’s mixed feelings about that,” said MacKinnon.

Two unions representing federal workers, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, are pushing back.

“There is purpose to going into the office but I’d like it to be presence with purpose,” said Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

The unions are calling the approach a “one-size-fits-all” policy that puts workers’ health and safety at risk.

Carr said some people don’t even have desks.

“People are having to reserve a desk to go into. So every day you could be working at a different floor or different building,” Carr said. “We’ve heard reports of booking a desk and coming in and the desk is actually a bean bag chair or the desk doesn’t exist.”

Kyle MacIsaac, a labour lawyer with Mathews Dinsdale's Halifax office points out how employers generally have the legal authority to decide where employees work, except for situations involving human rights-protected grounds.

“In traditional circumstances, bricks and mortar work locations are the norm,” MacIsaac said.

But beyond the legal question, MacIsaac notes there’s a practical one. While the federal government’s work plan is garnering a lot of attention right now, the private sector has been grappling with return-to-work policies for months.

He notes some employees have become accustomed to working from home and any employer who takes an aggressive approach and doesn’t offer workers flexibility may lose staff.

“I think some employers are being faced with employees who are denying this request and simply saying ‘look I have transferable skills. I can go to a new workplace in which they permit me to work from home,’” he said.

Back at her café, Muller welcomes the chance to serve anyone. She also caters office breakfasts and lunches.

“That depends on office workers physically attending meetings in the office,” Muller said. Top Stories

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