New Zealand / Covid 19

Plea for workers to return to Wellington CBD to support businesses

11:50 am on 8 June 2020

The government is pouring billions of dollars into supporting businesses but retailers in the capital say if government employees do not return to the CBD, their outlook is grim.

Business New Zealand said the public sector should play their role in Wellington's economic recovery by encouraging workers back into the city. Photo: 123RF

Some government departments have indicated a number of staff may choose to work from home permanently post-Covid, even if Cabinet decides to lift restrictions today.

"Shop local where possible" has been the constant refrain from the government during lockdown - and "local" for civil servants has traditionally been the CBD, where many shops and cafes rely on their custom.

However, the Health Ministry is one government department in which up 80 percent of staff have indicated they would like to keep working from home (at least some of the time), even after restrictions are lifted.

That prospect worries Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope.

"I think it would be disappointing and right now it's important for the public sector to be able to play their role in the economic recovery of Wellington."

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

The State Services Commission has been working on more flexible work arrangements for public servants, even before lockdown made it a necessity.

No-one from the commission was available for interview, but in a written statement a spokesperson said it was not yet known how Covid-19 would affect future work conditions.

"It's likely we will see more flexibility built into the workforce, ranging from earlier starts, later finishes, working from home and other arrangements but there is no one-size-fits-all, every agency will have their own specific requirements."

However, the largest state sector union is also sounding a note of caution.

Public Service Association national secretary Glenn Barclay said flexibility was great - as long as it went both ways.

"I think we need to be really careful about this, because there are lots of positives about working from home for those who really want to do it.

"But you don't really want to be in the situation where you've wholesale made a bunch of jobs over to 'work from home jobs', so they don't really become flexible for the employee at all."

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

The union fears public servants - toiling away out of sight at home without the usual health and safety protections - could be at risk of repetitive strain injuries from poorly configured work stations or undiagnosed mental health problems.

Capital Property Investors Association president Adam Cockburn said he expected there would be fewer people in the CBD, at least initially.

However, suburban centres may stand to benefit from extra spending, he suggested.

"Wellington has probably the most robust employment base in the country, with the government sector, I mean the government sector is not likely to shrink any time soon.

"So the jobs will be there, it's just a question of exactly where will the people be and will they spend a little less time in the CBD, perhaps?"

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said he has spoken to the head of the State Services Commission and senior private sector leaders about the need to encourage workers back to the city.

"We're keen to have them back, that provides so much strength to retail and cafes and other hospitality as well.

"So it helps keep employment going.

"And basically, once we get to level 1, we expect most people to be coming back and we expect public transport to be getting closer to normal as well, which is an important component of getting people here and getting people home."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there was no messaging coming from government that departments should stay away any longer than required by each lockdown level but some workers may choose to work from home.

"No-one's been told that they have to.

"We are checking on the different departments, the messages that have been sent, just to make sure they are accurate in terms of health advice."

The State Services Commission said it was encouraging government departments to gradually bring their workers back to the office, while ensuring they met public health requirements.