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Public service managers' return-to-workplace guide outlines plan to return public employees to government offices

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The government of Alberta offices in Edmonton, photographed before social distancing rules came into effect. Image: David J. Climenhaga

With talk that managers of Alberta's public service are likely to be back in their offices next Monday preparing for the return of most of the rest of the government's direct employees to their workplaces by July 20, the public service has prepared a 41-page "Government of Alberta Return to the Workplace Manager Guide" to steer the effort.

Alberta government employees have been working from home to avoid infection with COVID-19 since March on the advice of Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw.

But Alberta's United Conservative Party government is clearly anxious to capitalize on relatively low infection rates up to now in the province to give the appearance of decisive action to restart the economy by returning to normal government operations.

If the plan now being discussed in the Alberta Public Service to reopen government offices goes ahead as expected, the only exceptions would be employees who can't return because of specific medical concerns.

While the guide does not state the dates for the planned return to work, it assures managers "we will follow the advice of the chief medical officer of health."

"In alignment with the Alberta Relaunch Strategy, GoA employees will return in a staggered approach," the guide says. "Department plans have been created to meet each group's unique needs and detail which employees will return in each phase."

The guide promises "adequate safety will be ensured" by measures that include physical distancing, reminders about illness prevention, signage and "adequate supplies of hand-sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and surgical masks" -- with the not very reassuring note that a supply of masks will be provided only for "those positions that require it."

Clean workplaces will be "a joint responsibility," the guide says, with employees "responsible for cleaning cubicles and office equipment and surfaces." There will be no use of boardrooms, and no in-person meetings. Handshaking will be discouraged.

In the event of a COVID-19 infection in a reopened workplace, the guide instructs managers "not to send out or circulate notices to staff on a positive test occurrence at the worksite" on the grounds this would amount to publishing confidential medical information.

In the event an employee advises other employees they or a family member are positive for COVID-19, the manager is instructed to tell employees the information cannot be confirmed. In addition, the guide says, "Manager will not advise other staff of an Employee's positive test for COVID-19 if they become aware of the Employee's identity through (Ministry of Health) contact tracing."

Amusingly, the guide includes a schematic diagram showing the bureaucratic process for getting a workplace sneeze guard approved and installed.

Given the recent surge in COVID-19 infections in Edmonton, a return to work by many employees on July 6 seems too early -- especially in light of the catastrophic experience in U.S. jurisdictions that rushed to reopen. More community spread of COVID-19 seems probable as a result.

Since the plan involves employees being required to come into the office but to act as if they were still working at home, and since senior public officials have been informed civil service productivity has not declined during the lockdown, it's not at all clear what the point is.

Meanwhile, at 11 a.m. this morning, Premier Jason Kenney and Finance Minister Travis Toews have scheduled a news conference to roll out their "plan for Alberta's economic recovery."

Yesterday, in an unusual Sunday press release, the government announced a program of $5,000 relaunch grants for small and medium-sized businesses to offset costs of setting up to operate during a pandemic.

As we have seen in other recent government news releases, this one featured supportive quotes from supposedly non-partisan business organizations including the Alberta Chambers of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses.

Let not thy left thumb know what thy right thumb tweeteth!

It turns out, apparently, that leopards can change their spots!

This discovery seems to have been brought to the United Conservative Party's attention between June 15 and June 28.

At any rate, it was on June 15 Environment Minister Jason Nixon tweeted sarcastically about Tides Canada's decision to adopt the name MakeWay to differentiate itself from the U.S.-based Tides Foundation.

"A leopard never changes its spots," Nixon said. "Tides can try to rebrand itself, but its goal will always be to 'MakeWay' for the destruction of Alberta's most important industries. We see you …"

On June 28, however, Premier Kenney took issue with those who are demanding he fire his speechwriter for offensive comments written over several years, including claims abuses in residential schools were "a bogus genocide," that "homosexuality is individually and socially destructive" and "AIDS gets more ink than it deserves," and a suggestion many refugees are "barbarians inside the gates." Paul Bunner's statement about residential schools was published in 2013.

Bunner seems to have said nothing that would suggest his views have changed.

However, the June 28 statement from Premier Kenney's office noted that "peoples' views have evolved over decades -- and that includes Mr. Bunner."

So there you have it. Leopards do change their spots -- at least when it suits Jason Kenney.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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