By Chad Ingram
Minden Hills staff who work out of the township’s administrative building on Milne Street will continue working from the location for now.
Minden Hills council held a special meeting held virtually via Zoom on Oct. 22 to discuss a recommendation from the township emergency control group that staff be sent to work from home amid rising confirmed COVID-19 cases in the province as Ontario experiences a second wave of the virus. Staff members had worked from home during the initial wave of the virus.
“The ECG discussed that the work at home model implemented earlier this year was successful and that business continuity was maintained,” read a report from township chief administrative officer Trisha McKibbin, who started with the township in July. “Staff who were working from home beginning in March returned to the physical workplace on July 6. Currently, all staff are reporting and conducting tasks in the physical workplace. There are current instances where department heads are working from home. The ECG felt that staff members could work from home and then schedule time in the office for such things as photocopying or printing.”
McKibbin told councillors other admin offices in the county were open to either walk-in traffic or appointments.
“The county is open to the public, so the building is open for walk-in traffic,” McKibbin said. “Dysart, Highlands East and Algonquin Highlands are all doing the practices and protocols that we are, which is we are open by appointment, which means we’re not open to walk-in traffic, but if somebody needs to meet with staff for a permit review or paperwork, an appointment is scheduled for staff interaction. I also confirmed what working from home policies are in place, and at the lower tiers, that’s occurring on an infrequent basis. So staffers are all in the office, and there might be those one-off situations where a team member may be working from home.”
McKibbin told councillors it was her preference to have staff in the building, referring to the fact that cases of COVID-19 in the county have been relatively low.
“I also want to make very clear all the decisions we make are based on the best information that we have at this time,” she said. “So we know that things are evolving and changing, but at this current moment, based on all the safety procedures and protocols we have in place, my personal preference is to have staff remain, as long as we can, in the workplace.”
Councillors agreed with McKibbin’s recommendation.
“I am in complete agreement with the CAO,” said Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell. “I do not see any reason at this time that we would be sending staff to work again. We have put a lot of money as a municipality to make sure all the safeguards are in place for staff. It’s a large building, everybody has their own space. We have all stations, even bathrooms, individually separated for people, so I would not be in agreement with the ECG suggestion.”
The emergency control group consists mostly of township department heads and senior staff, as well as Schell and Mayor Brent Devolin.
“So basically it’s predominantly staff and two members of council,” Devolin said. “I want to commend the CAO. Managing and making these big decisions is, in my mind, is clearly the decision of council, which is why she requested this meeting, so these types of decisions clearly come back and that all members of council are involved.”
Councillor Bob Carter said he did not support sending staff home at this time.
“I think the key decision here is, where is there benefit in making a change and does the municipality and the public benefit from having this in place?” Carter said. “Health and safety always trumps virtually everything else, but there doesn’t appear to be an imminent health and safety issue here, because we’ve put into place parameters and we’ve put into place procedures to maintain the health and safety of our staff. So I’m having a difficult time in seeing why we would go ahead with something like this.”
Another portion of McKibbin’s report dealt with establishing a work-from-home policy to govern such situations in general – in the case of a new child, for instance – and not just situations related to the ongoing pandemic. A revised draft of that policy will come back to council at a subsequent meeting.