COVID-19 Update from the President of PAFSO for February 19, 2021

Dear members,

I just counted, and this will be my 30th update to you concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Although I don’t always have as much concrete information to give you as I would like, I am committed to making sure that you know what we know, what we don’t know, and what we are doing to close the gap.

We’ve been living and working under these circumstances for almost a year now. And while most of us have found ways to deal with this “new normal”, it has not been easy. Humans are biologically wired to experience a fight, flight, freeze or fawn stress response when confronted with threats and unpredictability on a scale like this one. If you are finding it challenging to cope with it all, the good news is that you are normal. The bad news is that we are not done with this thing yet.

A few weeks ago, with this reality in mind, PAFSO launched a follow-up questionnaire designed to gauge how the pandemic has affected the mental health, morale and workload of our members. As I write this, nearly a quarter of you have taken the time to respond. That’s a great response rate, but we are trying to get the most complete picture of the impact o the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Employer’s response to it. So, if you haven’t yet, I’d like to ask you to please take a few minutes to fill out the short questionnaire before midnight on 28 February. Rest assured that your responses are anonymous and will only be used in aggregate. PAFSO will use this data to help us to refine our advocacy and programming to better meet your needs.

The preliminary results so far are showing us some useful things. Only ten percent of you are working full-time from the office, with the rest working from home all or part of the time, and the vast majority report no pressure to return to work before it is safe. The biggest problem with working from home is lack of infrastructure and ergonomic equipment and your main individual work-related concerns are psychological health, workload, and ergonomics/childcare issues.  On a broader scale, members are most worried about the overall effects of the pandemic on Canada and Canadians, possible downsizing of the Foreign Service, and their home department’s shifting priorities.

We hear you and we are continuing to work on your behalf to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on you and your families, including by ensuring that the Employer meets its duty-of-care and other obligations. Last week, GAC bargaining agents met with management and received a briefing on the developing vaccination strategy for CBS and families abroad.  We learned that GAC expects to see those designated as “front line/essential” vaccinated by the end of June, and to take care of the remaining CBS and dependents by the end of September, in line with the Prime Minister’s commitment to all Canadians. In order to do this, they will employ a mixture of methods including authorizing local vaccination where available and safe, establishing central delivery points for some regions, and transporting vaccines directly to missions in others. Since there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach across the network, your best source of information will continue to be your mission and geographic management. However, PAFSO will be monitoring the situation to ensure that the approach is consistent and fair.

On the issue of fairness, we are aware of the ongoing difficulties with travel and vacation at missions, and are working to make management aware of the detrimental effects of their policies on the psychological health and well-being of our members. The fact that last week’s announcement of the implementation of mandatory three-day hotel quarantine for travellers arriving in Canada was not accompanied by clear and complete official guidelines for staff on what will and will not be covered by the Employer has made the situation worse. We are doing our best to get as much clarity as possible, and to make the point that members should not be expected to assume large unforeseen costs for quarantine on travel undertaken as a result of their employment.

Ongoing irritants such as the unnecessarily onerous process for Public Service Health Care Plan (PSHCP) claims abroad do not make pandemic life any easier. Although the insurance contract and the relationship with the service provider are not part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which limits the “hard” mechanisms available to PAFSO, we have raised the problems with the Plan Administrator and with TBS through the NJC and GAC. You can help bolster our efforts by writing to the Federal PSHCP Administration Authority, Box 2245, Station D, Ottawa, ON K1P 5W4 and sending a copy of your letter to info@pafso.com. We will use your points to inform both our dialogue with the Employer and our position on the upcoming renewal of the PSHCP, which offers our best hope of a long-term solution. In the meantime, we also recommend that members who anticipate problems with reimbursement seek medical advances through their missions and contact the PAFSO office for support if they believe a request has been unreasonably denied.

In other news, as part of our ongoing anti-racism efforts, on 9 February, I had the honour of hosting Myriam Montrat, head of GAC’s Anti-Racism Secretariat. As a part of our ongoing PAFSO Virtual Breakfast series, Myriam’s talk focused on the role of her organization, the trends and issues she and her team have identified so far, and the ways in which PAFSO and its members can help make things better. It was a very enlightening conversation. If you did not have a chance to catch it, you can find a recording of the session on our YouTube channel.

Our next PAFSO Virtual Breakfast will take place at 0800 on Tuesday, 9 March, and will feature Michel Salmon of Lumas Inc. Michel will speak to us about personal and organizational leadership, which should be in interesting discussion for “these times.”  You can register for the Zoom session here.

In keeping with our commitment to combat systemic racism in the workplace, I’d like to bring to your attention two important learning opportunities on Black Canadians and mental health from the Centre of Expertise on Mental Health in the Workplace. The first session, Anti-Black Racism: Impact on Mental Health, will be hosted by the British Columbia chapter of the Federal Black Employee Caucus and will take place on 23 February at 1400, Ottawa time. Click here to join in. The second session, Let’s Talk Black Mental Health, will be hosted by the National research Council and will take place on 24 February at 1300, Ottawa time. Sign up here.

And, to cap off Black History Month 2021, the Canadian Labour Congress invites you to attend a webinar on the subject of systemic anti-Black racism in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be looking at the question of how the labour movement can ensure that the pandemic recovery is both inclusive and equitable. The session will be held on 23 February at 1300, Ottawa time. Use this link to join in on the conversation.

As always, should you have any questions or concerns about your situation at work, please contact our executive director, Kim Coles. She will put you in touch with one of our labour relations advisors. If there’s anything else you require, just send an email to info@pafso.com and someone will get back to you as soon as possible.

If you just feel like checking in over a coffee, remember that we hold our virtual chats every Wednesday at 1030 Ottawa time. Click here to join in.

On a final, sombre note, as of today, our friend and colleague Michael Kovrig and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor mark 802 days of imprisonment in China. It’s time to bring the two Michaels home. If you would like to support our efforts to turn those words into action, please consider using our graphics kit  to get the message out on social media.

Take care of yourselves and each other. We’ll chat again in two weeks.

All the best,

Pam Isfeld
President

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