Maintaining the Health and Safety of All NWT Workers and Residents

Yellowknife, NT – July 20, 2020: Public service workers comprise approximately half the NWT workforce.

In contrast to recent comments and opinions circulated through social media and the press regarding the workloads of public servants, many public service workers never stopped attending their respective work sites when the Covid-19 restrictions required the closure of many workplaces in March 2020. In addition to Healthcare workers, the public service comprises numerous sectors of workers who have remained at their work sites with increased pressures and workloads due to Covid-19, including but certainly not limited to corrections staff, social workers, various enforcement officers, and those who maintain our municipalities and critical infrastructure.

There is a popular misconception that all public workers hold full-time, indeterminate, and office-based positions. The “lazy office worker” is a tired stereotype that is far too often used to perpetuate negative attitudes toward the workers that are vital to keeping our territory running.

For those workers who are able to work remotely, a safe return to work is not as simple as moving some desks and wearing a mask. Accommodating safety measures for offices that see hundreds of workers and members of the public come and go throughout the workday requires careful planning and a phased approach that cannot and should not be rushed. It is not in anyone’s best interests to have downtown cores suddenly vacated once again should an outbreak or second wave emerge.

In the south, the private sector has been leading for several years now in developing work from home policies and more flexible work days for office-based employees. These private sector models have, to a great extent, shaped how the public sector has developed and coordinated work from home policies since the Covid-19 restrictions came into effect.

According to the 2020-2021 GNWT Budget Address: “the NWT has been steadily shifting towards a services-based economy. The combined services producing industries accounted for 68 per cent of NWT GDP in 2018, compared to just 48 per cent a decade ago. Public sector activities dominate this sector, with public administration, education, health and social services accounting for 32 per cent of NWT GDP in 2018.”

In a government-based economy such as the NWT, the spending power of public service salaries are a significant driver of our territorial economy. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 restrictions, NWT residents – especially public service workers – have been encouraged to inject even more of their hard earned income into the local economy, and we encourage them to continue to shop local, explore more of the NWT, and support our fellow residents.

Public service workers do not exist in a bubble, unaffected by the fallout of Covid-19; the ability to work flexibly and remain on full pay has enabled many workers to support affected partners who are suddenly out of work, assist friends and neighbours with childcare arrangements, continue to support local businesses, and reduce the overall strain on public supports.

NWT residents and businesses are anxious to “return to normal”, but we need to think carefully about what the new normal will look like. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many pre-existing issues in our society and economy that require thoughtful consideration and possibly a new approach.

Our economic recovery will depend on more than just marching people back into offices and throwing taxpayer’s dollars at the loudest lobbyists; it requires a holistic remedy that includes ensuring everyone has equitable access to participate and be productive in our society. This can only be accomplished if all sectors are represented and have a voice in the decision-making.

The negative side-effects of Covid-19 restrictions are not to be taken lightly, but as we look to jurisdictions in the south, we are already seeing the fallout of what happens when economies open up too fast. Our healthcare and social services system will bear the brunt of that fallout; a system comprised of hardworking public service workers who risk their own safety every day to care for others.

As representatives of those, and other public service workers, we acknowledge the hard work and due diligence of the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO) and the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) in prioritizing health and safety during the first wave of the pandemic and call on them to make balanced decisions regarding Covid-19 restrictions based on the continued priority of physical and mental health and safety for ALL workers and residents of the NWT.

Todd Parsons
President of the Union of Northern Workers

Submitted as a Letter to the Editor published by NNSL on July 22