Despite a warm welcome for a push for decentralization in the legislature, a government worker navigating the policy in Watson Lake said the process of allowing remote work in smaller communities isn’t being practised.
On Oct. 7, NDP leader Kate White introduced a motion to the legislature urging the government to better implement the official decentralization policy and support employees who want to relocate to smaller communities.
While a number of Liberal MLAs applauded the motion, Minister of the Public Service Commission Richard Mostyn removed a clause referring to specific positions and agreed that the official policy needs to be modernized, but said the broader work of decentralization is ongoing.
“As we have said on countless occasions, all communities matter,” Mostyn said.
“We want to support current employees who wish to relocate to a community through remote work arrangements,” he said.
Mostyn said currently, close to 16 per cent of Yukon government employees live outside of Whitehorse. He pointed out that around 21 per cent of working-age Yukoners live in rural communities, meaning “there is definitely a gap there.”
During the legislature discussion, Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai said his department already had an employee from the Regional Economic Development office working remotely. He referenced a position in Watson Lake as a success story.
But Elise Pendlebury, the development officer who was granted relocation to Watson Lake, said that the official support for decentralization isn’t lining up with reality for her family.
Pendlebury has lived in Watson Lake now for over a year. She has friends, her child is now registered in daycare and her partner has a carpentry business that takes on local apprentices.
But despite being settled in the community, she said her supervisors told her in February that her temporary assignment in Watson Lake was being cancelled and she would be required to relocate back to Whitehorse.
“People want to live in their communities. I even pointed out to my department, the decentralization policy that has been around since 1994, saying there is a policy that supports this,” she said.
After arguing her case to stay in the community, rather than move back to Whitehorse, Pendlebury said she has been suspended without pay and is facing potential backlash for speaking publicly about the situation.
“It’s very frustrating. There are so many logical reasons why it makes sense for people to be able to work out of the smaller communities,” she said.
In the House, NDP MLA Liz Hanson pointed out the situation with the Watson Lake position.
“So, you need to have teeth and the commitment of senior management and the minister to actually see, when those good relationships are happening, that they’re carried out. It’s difficult to see the consistency between the words that I heard the minister speak and the actions of the government,” she said.
Pillai told reporters that he could not comment on a specific human resources personnel file. He did say the position in Watson Lake was a pilot program.
“What I will say is I definitely like us having representation in the community. I’m still working with the deputy minister of economic development to see more of these positions exist,” Pillai said.
Laura Eby, executive director of the Association of Yukon Communities, said the policy needs to be modernized and actively promoted.
“Yukon government jobs in rural communities have a tremendous impact including housing sales, increase in property tax income for municipalities, local spending, increased student population and more volunteers to help with community initiatives,” she said.
White said it will take “maturity of management” to trust employees to work at a distance.
In the legislative assembly, White also referenced a recently implemented effort to employ more First Nations citizens in the territorial government.
“In many cases individuals might have to choose between taking a good Yukon government job and moving to Whitehorse, or not applying for that job and stay living in their community on their traditional territory,” she said.
“That’s an impossible decision, and wherever possible, we should try to avoid forcing anyone into making that choice,” she said.
Mostyn said the pandemic, which forced many government workers into impromptu work-from-home arrangements, has been a starting point for shifting the culture of the government towards remote work.
He said the department is currently reviewing “telework” policies and creating new guidelines around remote work, expected to be released in winter.
Mostyn also referred to new community health positions, visits to local communities, relationship-building with First Nations governments and measures to improve broadband internet access as broader pieces of the decentralization efforts the government is championing.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org