CRA back-to-office dispute is really about boosting Ottawa small businesses, says prof

As tax season begins, a policy expert says a major dispute between Canada’s tax agency and a union of its workers has little to do with the job itself.

Carleton University business professor Ian Lee says the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is pushing workers to return to the office because of concerns about the state of small businesses in Ottawa.

“[Businesses are] so short of customers right now because people are working from home,” said Lee. “[People are] not coming downtown and buying coffees, pizzas, dry cleaning . . .”

Lee believes the federal government is trying to bring all public-sector workers back to the office because a significant number would return to the struggling city of Ottawa, and, in theory, revitalize the economy.

Ottawa is made up of roughly 1,000,000 people. The Government of Canada employs about 105,000 workers in the area, including about 12,000 CRA workers.

Union leaders have refused to budget on return-to-office policies, prioritizing remote work after a year of negotiations.

The CRA was attempting to impose a flawed system of return-to-work, the leaders said, which would force many employees to relocate, or scramble to find childcare arrangements.

“If your work can be done 100% of the time and in an effective manner from home, […] the Canada Revenue Agency should allow you to continue working remotely. Period,” the union wrote in a public statement last week.

Lee, who teaches at Carleton’s Sprott School of Business, said the work-from-home policy is especially appealing to women – and pushing for a return-to-office mandate is shunning that group the federal government has long claimed to prioritize.

“The government’s being insensitive to the needs of women with children,” said Lee, “which is ironic, because this is the government that was elected in 2015 that said it will always put the needs of women first.”

Lee said women with children are attempting to navigate a complex work-life balance, and are likely driving the union’s push for remote work policies.

True North reached out to the CRA for comment, but did not receive a response before publication.

Union leaders reaffirmed their priority of work-from-home policies last week, saying the union will continue strike votes as a way to gain bargaining power.

Strike votes started on January 31st, and are scheduled to end on April 7th.

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