In an ongoing post-COVID trend, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) filed a bad faith bargaining complaint against the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) regarding ongoing collective agreement negotiations. 

According to a recent press release, the CRA stopped negotiating remote work plans and has advised workers that they are expected to work in the office two days per week under a return-to-office plan. 

This article will cover this unfolding situation and discuss the implications of return-to-office plans for employees

Previous Negotiations and the Return to Office Plan

The PIPSC and the CRA have been in negotiations since October 2022. During these negotiations, remote work was identified as a top priority for union members. Both parties prepared proposals for what a hybrid remote environment could look like. 

However, during bargaining meetings in January 2023, the CRA advised that it no longer intended to incorporate remote work into the collective agreement. Instead, it expected all employees to return to the office two days per week (instead of working remotely on a nearly full-time basis). 

The Impact of the Bad Faith Bargaining Complaint

Bad faith bargaining complaints may be made when a party acts in a manner that is arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. The PIPSC’s complaint was filed with the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board, though similar complaints processes exist in other jurisdictions. 

The PIPSC is seeking an order directing the CRA to engage in “meaningful bargaining relating to remote work.” 

While the review process results have not been released, the Board has wide-ranging powers to resolve labour relations complaints, such as assisting the parties in settling the complaint or making orders directing the parties to pay damages or take a particular action. Time will tell what decision they make. 

What Employees Should Know About Return to Office Plans

For now, negotiations like the one outlined above have many employees wondering: do I have to start working in the office again if my employer wants me to? Many Canadians are concerned about the implications of return-to-office plans, whether they’re working remotely full-time or have started picking up more days in the offices. 

Can My Employer Force Me to Return to the Office? 

Assuming you were not working remotely before the COVID-19 pandemic, your employer can make you return to the office. Employers have the right to direct where employees work; as such, they can decide whether employees can work from home, the office, or somewhere in between. 

Can I Ask My Employer to Allow Me to Work Remotely?  

Nothing stops employees from asking to continue working remotely, and you are within your right to raise this conversation with management. 

However, it’s important to tread carefully. If, for instance, you outright refuse to return to the office, your employer may be able to treat your refusal as a resignation. Furthermore, it’s prudent to consider your job duties and employment circumstances before broaching the topic and whether such a conversation will create friction in your work environment. 

Is My Employer Required to Take Safety Precautions?   

Employers must provide a safe working environment for employees, including compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O.1, the Employment Standards Act, 2000, S.O. 2000, c. 41, and public health measures. To that end, it’s important to make a note of any concerns you have regarding safety in your workplace and to raise these concerns with your employer as soon as possible. 

Are There Exceptions to Returning to the Office? 

In two situations, you may be entitled to continue working from home, despite your employer’s return to office plans. 

First, if you cannot return to the office due to health or medical reasons, you may be entitled to continue working remotely. Ontario employees are protected by the duty to accommodate: if you are unable to perform your job for religious reasons, disability, or other constraints, your employer has a duty to accommodate you. 

Remember that accommodation for medical reasons requires supporting evidence from a medical professional – it’s not enough to say that you have concerns about returning to the office. 

Second, if you have childcare obligations that you cannot fulfil (for instance, if you cannot find daycare services), your employer has a duty to accommodate your childcare needs. However, remember that childcare obligations do not give you carte blanche to work remotely long-term. Your employer must accommodate you if, for example, your child needs to stay home or you are actively searching for alternate childcare arrangements. In some cases, an employer may elect to approve an unpaid leave in these circumstances rather than allowing you to work from home. 

Additional exceptions may arise depending on your circumstances – for more information, consult with an experienced employment law lawyer

Tips for a Safe Return to Office

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, many employers are requesting their employees to return to work – and they are, in most cases, entitled to do so. If you have been called back to the office (whether on a part-time or full-time basis), take the following steps to stay safe and healthy: 

  • Alert your employer immediately if you identify any health or safety issues in the workplace.
  • Follow personal hygiene practices (including frequent hand washing, use of hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment, if appropriate).
  • Clean your workspace regularly. 
  • Practice physical distancing, especially in common areas. 

Ultimately, your health and safety should be a top priority for your employer. Suppose you have serious concerns about your safety in the workplace due to COVID-19 or otherwise. In that case, you have the right to refuse work under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O.1. For more information on the process for a work refusal, visit the Ontario government’s guide on Right to refuse or to stop work where health and safety in danger

Contact An Ottawa Employment Lawyer at Tierney Stauffer LLP

Whether you’re an employee or an employer, the experienced lawyers at Tierney Stauffer LLP can provide advice for various employment concerns, including contracts, terminations, and much more. To discuss your legal matter with a member of our employment team, contact Tierney Stauffer LLP in Ottawa, Eastern Ontario, and North Bay at 1-888-799-8057 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. 


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