When the pandemic first hit Canada, the federal bargaining agents – including ACFO-ACAF – and the employer established a COVID-19 working group that worked together to transition much of the public service to work from home. As an analysis by David Macdonald from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded, this transition was an incredible success – the public service maintained 95% productivity during a global pandemic and complete transition of the workplace model.

At the same time, the working group ensured that leave with pay would be available when, as per section 17.22(a) of the FI Collective Agreement, “circumstances not directly attributable to the employee prevent their reporting for duty” using leave code 699. This has been an important tool available to management and employees to ensure human rights accommodation is put in place – particularly for those at greater risk due to their medical situation or those of their family members.

This was always going to be a temporary measure. The collective agreements in place for federal workers never anticipated a global pandemic interrupting economic activity on a global scale for more than six months. As such, ACFO-ACAF has proposed since April to use the working group to re-open the collective agreements, even temporarily, to add additional provisions to better accommodate a global pandemic.

Unfortunately, the employer has thus far elected to treat this as policy exercise and work in isolation, delaying and avoiding meetings with the working group. Last week the group met for the first time in months and it is clear the employer could unilaterally impose limits on the availability of 699 leave as early as September. The belief seems to be that other existing provisions in the collective agreement such as sick leave, leave without pay and personal needs leave – provisions negotiated in a far different global climate than we face now – will be enough to cover the various needs of employees.

We will continue to push the employer to do the right thing and negotiate provisions that will be fair and recognize that a small number of people need special accommodation during this unprecedented time. In the meantime, though, any ACFO-ACAF members who are currently using 699 leave should start to prepare for what may be coming in September. If your leave is related to medical issues for you or someone in your family, you will need a medical note confirming this. If your leave is related to childcare or limited access to your files and the departmental network, contact your manager or ACFO-ACAF as soon as possible to discuss your options.

We’ve known since the early days of the pandemic that something would have to give. The widescale use of the 699 leave code when needed represented the best option but ACFO-ACAF has pushed to work together to find a more workable, more sustainable solution. Instead, the employer seems determined to push forward a flawed approach unilaterally.

The timing of this move – coming at the same time that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is being wound down and schools are reopening – couldn’t be worse. This will only compound the stress and worsen the mental health of the public service workforce. And given that case numbers are creeping up again in several jurisdictions ahead of an expected fall wave, we’re unsure why there’s such an eagerness to disrupt a system that has thus far kept the public service 95% productive.

As our colleagues at PIPSC articulated so well, working parents across the country – especially women – have been forced to choose between their careers and taking care of their children. Since the start of the pandemic, participation of women in the labour force has been set back nearly three decades. Every sector of society is being challenged to come up with flexible leave policies to help working parents equitably manage caregiving demands. Rolling back the availability of paid leave is a step in the wrong direction when so many other employers are working to find ways to meet the high bar set by this government.

Throughout this pandemic we’ve all been advised to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. So while we remain hopeful that the employer will do the right thing, delay the changes to how paid leave is recognized during a global pandemic and work with us to find a more sustainable solution, we must advise members to prepare for the worst and plan for reduced access to 699 leave.