The province appears to be closing in on its goal of one-third of civil service employees working remotely, something government officials have been keen on since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The work-from-home concept took a big leap forward during the early days of the pandemic, in both private and public sectors.
Only a few weeks after PEI imposed a state of public health emergency in spring 2020, then Transportation Minister Steven Myers said government wanted as many as 33 per cent of its employees working from home, saying that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was part of the goal.
Since then, the government has surveyed employees in both 2020 and 2021. Data provided by the province shows that, as of the most recent survey on September 2021, 26 per cent of the entire civil service, a total of 977 employees, were working remotely on a full or part-time basis.
April Gallant, communications officer for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said that number rose to 35 per cent this past winter when restrictions once again tightened due to the Omicron variant.
While the province plans another employee survey this fall, Ms Gallant points out, “it’s anticipated that remote work uptake (will be) similar to that experienced in September 2021.”
While there’s little specific data for individual departments, Ms Gallant said seven out of the 27 employees based at the Department of Fisheries and Communities building in Montague currently have a telework arrangement.
In addition, all 75 eastern PEI-based employees of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure work at the office.
“This would be primarily due to the job requirements; for instance, providing front-line service to Islanders at our Access PEI sites,” Ms Gallant said. That number includes staff working at the Georgetown Government Garage, the Cardigan Bus Depot and the Bridgetown mechanical depot.
Public Service Commission spokesperson Kip Ready insists cost savings to government haven’t played a role in the push for remote work.
“Rather, (it’s) for the benefit of health and safety, effectiveness and efficiency of the employee and department,” Mr Ready said, “as well as working toward government’s environmental targets and the clear climate benefits that derive from not having individuals commute across the province each day.”
He said remote work and other flexible work arrangements will continue to be encouraged.
“Many managers, supervisors and respective staff have reported they are better able to balance work and home and hope to continue their arrangements over the long term,” Mr Ready said.
Ms Gallant noted that staff working remotely will be a consideration in regards to office space requirements, saying that reducing government’s reliance on leased space is an important strategy for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Eastern PEI may not feel direct impact from fewer people working from the office.
Alan MacPhee, owner of the Main Street Mall in Souris, points out there isn’t a significant government workforce in the Souris area.
“Business for us remains quite strong, and we’re seeing a lot of traffic, especially since travel has been normalized this summer,” Mr MacPhee said. “Our greatest challenge remains recruitment, but we’re making good inroads on that at the moment, as well.”
Jackie Herbert, executive director of the Island East Tourism Group, concurs that many of the organization’s members rely more on visitors “and from what I’m seeing, are doing quite well.”
Ms Herbert adds, “It’s quite possible some of their patrons are visitors with jobs that allow them to work remotely and have chosen PEI as their work-from-home destination - plenty of sectors have seen the ability of their employees to work just as well from home, as they do the office.”
Russ Compton, president of the Eastern PEI Chamber of Commerce, says while members have concerns relating to delays in building and other permits issued by the province, complaints regarding federal government services “far outweigh and hamper” local businesses.
“It seems to be in every department ... it takes forever to get anything done,” Mr Compton said.
Mr Compton says the major issues for businesses are passport delays and concerns involving COVID regulations around border crossings. Another major concern is the difficulty in filling employee vacancies.
“A Zoom parliament has existed for the last two-plus years, and this has stalled our country,” Mr Compton said. “Downtown Charlottetown and Summerside businesses that rely on Veterans Affairs and Canada Revenue Agency (employees) for year-round business flow have been devastated and (business owners) are incensed at the losses.”
He points out government has grown “drastically” during the pandemic while the private sector has shrunk.
“Across the board, I see a decline in services, federally, provincially, across the province. Other chambers are seeing a slowdown nationwide in just about everything,” he said.
“These issues were from before COVID, but they’re certainly not any better now.”