Ottawa mayor urges federal government to bring employees back downtown

Laura Othman, Canadian Press

OTTAWA – The mayor of Ottawa is urging the federal government to return workers to their downtown offices to support struggling local businesses.

Jim Watson directly appealed to Treasury Board Chair Mona Fortier to bring federal public servants back downtown so they can start spending again at local businesses.

“A healthy city should have a healthy core,” Watson said in a statement.

About 94% of adults in Ottawa have been fully immunized and 98% of essential public service members have seen two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

But the number of civil servants working from home is still many, as are private sector employees.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is calling on the federal government to bring its workers back into the office. Many companies benefit from having these employees, assures union president, Dan Kelly.

“Not just restaurants, but dry cleaners, convenience stores, retailers and hotels downtown, these are some of the businesses that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 restrictions,” he said.

He said Ottawa’s small and medium-sized businesses have been particularly stressed compared to other urban centers since the start of the pandemic.

CFIB notes that a large anti-government protest in the heart of downtown has forced businesses to close for weeks this winter.

Meanwhile, the federal government appears to be among the slowest to get its workers back into the office, Kelly said. Ontario public service employees will begin returning on a part-time basis, by April 4, for example.

Fortier said in a statement Tuesday that the federal government has begun slowly increasing its office occupancy.

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The decision of how quickly and how far departments will quietly move away from telecommuting has been left primarily to individual managers with the support of the Treasury Board.

The Treasury Board Secretariat provides guidance to promote a consistent approach across departments and agencies, while respecting the different operational realities of each organization. She explained that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Ms Fortier said she keeps in regular contact with Mayor Watson to see how they can support the vitality of local restaurants and businesses.

Mr. Watson argued that even a hybrid business model could help struggling small businesses.

Many of these businesses could disappear if the government did not recall its officials to downtown, according to Mr. Kelly. But even with a hybrid formula, he believes the situation will be far from perfect.

“Downtown business is hanging by a thread, and in Ottawa, that thread is getting even more eroded,” Kelly said. So we need to act quickly.”

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