COVID outbreak among Montreal meteorologists points to bigger problems, union says

After a COVID-19 outbreak among government meteorologists in Montreal, their union is hoping that federal offices across the country will be radically transformed in the future.

“The government is really going to have rethink, now, how they lease space,” said Debi Daviau, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, often known as PIPSC.

A new health risk during the pandemic, she said, is when employees work “in a complex of buildings that also include public space.”

That was the case for the Environment Canada meteorologists who were sent home this week to self-isolate after several coworkers tested positive for coronavirus, leaving meteorologists in other parts of Canada handling Quebec’s weather forecasts.

The Montreal weather office is in the sprawling Place Bonaventure, part of the city’s huge interconnected “underground city” that includes offices, food courts, shops, the city’s train station, commuter rail and metro systems, and even a skating rink.

But different public health problems have also repeatedly come up at the federal government’s major office complexes elsewhere, said Daviau. She hopes leaders in Ottawa will use the pandemic as a chance to rethink their workers’ spaces and even to give many the chance to live outside of major cities.

COVID OUTBREAK SENDS FORECASTERS HOME

In Montreal, “a number” of employees of Environment and Climate Change Canada have been infected with COVID-19, said departmental spokesperson Gabrielle Lamontagne on Friday.

“As a precautionary measure, ECCC has asked all meteorologists at the facilities to self-isolate for 14 days and self-monitor for symptoms,” she wrote in a statement.

“The [weather] forecasting responsibilities of the office have been shifted to other forecast centres across the country following well-established and regularly exercised contingency plans.”

Public health authorities are advising, Lamontagne said. When the first case was identified, work was temporarily suspended for a deep clean, and a common workspace was separated into two parts to help keep people apart.

Working from home has always been encouraged when it was possible, Lamontagne said.

In the case of the meteorologists, it was impossible to work from home because they work on supercomputers that can’t be easily moved, said Daviau. The Montreal forecasters there predict regional weather for the public, as well as for “critical” marine and aviation uses, she said.

She said she wasn’t sure of the health condition of the infected employees, except to say she hasn’t “heard of any tragic outcomes” in updates from workers.

It’s not a problem for meteorologists across the country to handle Quebec’s weather for a while, she said. They all use the same software—it’s the weather that’s different.

“When you’re in Victoria, you can expect vastly different weather patterns from in St. John’s, for example,” she said. “From what my people tell me, it’s really the regional knowledge that's important.”

THE END OF OFFICE MEGAPLEXES

However, the situation is one more reminder that it is possible for work to be done in different spaces than what we’ve been used to for decades, Daviau said.

PIPSC represents more than 60,000 public service employees, most of them specialists: meteorologists, scientists, engineers, nurses, doctors, information technology workers, and so on. 

Many public servants work in huge office complexes that have long been infamous among those who know them. 

In Gatineau, for example, the Place du Portage houses “tens of thousands” of federal employees, and some floors are overcapacity, with 200 people in spaces designed for 100, said Daviau. The buildings date back to the 70s and 80s.

Employees have often had problems with the ventilation, she says. 

“A lot of government buildings” have also posed public health risks in the past, she said, with “bedbugs and other vermin,” including rats. 

“These buildings are not in good shape, and I think there’s probably a really good message here in terms of safety going forward.”

Many people would jump at the chance to work remotely, permanently, she said. It might allow them to live in more rural areas or smaller towns.

“The vast majority of public servants, if asked, would choose a model where they wouldn't have to live in the city centres,” she said. 

And for those who can’t work from home or don’t want to, a largely remote workplace would still vastly change their experience.

“It just doesn’t make sense anymore to be cramming people into” huge office complexes, Daviau said. “Place Bonaventure is sort of a city unto itself.”

Moving to widespread virtual work over the last two months has gone fairly well, she said, with some glitches that are being worked out. 

She says that in the immediate future, she hopes Environment and Climate Change Canada finds a way to protect its Montreal staff from having to pass through public spaces every day.

Another group of workers she represents have also been on her mind frequently during the pandemic, she said.

“You know who I think, from the get-go, have been the most overworked? The IT people," she said. “They've been the silent people in the background making all this work.”

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