On May 24, Alberta’s NDP government proposed major new workplace legislation — the first such changes in the province since 1988.
If it comes into effect as intended on Jan. 1, 2018, Bill 17, the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act, would set new labour and employment rules for maternity, personal and compassionate leaves, overtime and vacation pay, youth employment, labour arbitration and union certification.
The legislation aligns the province’s minimum employment standards with the rest of the country and, according to Labour Minister Christina Gray, brings “Alberta’s workplaces into the 21st century.”
There are two parts to the legislation, said Ken Kobly, president and CEO of the Alberta Chamber of Commerce.
“One deals primarily with employment standards and the other with the labour relations. While we support the proposals for unpaid leaves — most businesses already support their employees who need time away from the job — we are concerned with the number of proposals that affect business costs. Together, they layer one cost on another, and that means more financial pressure on businesses.”
There were also no individual, face-to-face consultations involved in preparing the act, he said.
“The government relied mostly on responses from an online survey and spent just 36 days preparing the legislation... In contrast, Ontario took two years reviewing its workplace legislation with all stakeholders before proposing changes.”
Highlights of changes
The changes in Alberta would be extensive, but some of the highlights include:
• Employees will be eligible for leaves after 90 days, rather than one year.
• Job protection for compassionate leave will be extended to 27 weeks, from eight weeks, to better align with federal employment insurance (EI) benefits.
• Caregiver status will be expanded to include non-primary caregivers.
• Leaves will be available for multiple weekly instalments within the period outlined in the medical certificate, rather than the current limit of two instalments.
• Job protection for maternity leave will be extended from 15 to 16 weeks to account for the one-week waiting time for federal EI benefits.
• Parental leave remains at 37 weeks until the expected expansion of the federal EI program to 52 weeks takes place. Once that occurs, Alberta’s parental leave provisions can be increased to match.
• People working for an employer for 90 days will be allowed to take unpaid leave for long-term illness and injury (16 weeks), domestic violence (10 days), family responsibilities (five days), bereavement (three days), a child’s critical illness (36 weeks) and the disappearance or death of a child (up to two years if the child’s death was caused by crime). Right now, there are no provisions for leave in these cases.
• Overtime agreements will allow time to be banked for six months rather than the current three. Overtime would be banked at one-and-a-half hours for every hour worked instead of straight time.
• All employees would be eligible for general holiday pay. Regular and non-regular day-of-work distinction would be eliminated. General holiday pay will be calculated simply as five per cent of wages from the previous four weeks worked.
• Employees must be paid four per cent or two weeks of their total wages as vacation pay until they have been employed for five years, after which they must receive at least six per cent.
• Employers will also be prevented from charging gas station and restaurant workers if customers leave without paying.
Labour relations code changes
The second part of the legislation involves changes to the labour relations code, specifically to the union certification process and arbitration.
The proposed new union certification process borrows from the Manitoba Labour Code, which uses a hybrid of card check and ballot votes.
This means unions can be certified without a secret ballot if more than 65 per cent of employees had verified membership cards. Less than 66 per cent would still require a vote.
The change is an improvement, but the government didn’t go far enough, according to Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
“We are happy that the government has acknowledged that the current system for union certification is flawed. While this legislation doesn’t bring in a more democratic model of automatic card check certification at a 50 per cent threshold, it does implement a hybrid model that allows for automatic certification. This change further allows people to exercise their constitutional right to join unions and bargain collectively.”
Others did not agree.
“The provincial government has stated that they want to align our labour relations code to federal standards, but the new union certification process goes in the opposite direction to the rest of the country,” said Paul de Jong, president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.
“Most voting in this country is done through secret ballot voting — which is also a cornerstone of our democracy.”
De Jong also took exception to the mandating of first-contract arbitration.
“Forcing third-party arbitration if management and labour are not in agreement after the first collective agreement is unnecessary,” he said. “It takes away from the consultative process for both labour and management.”
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean called on the NDP to split the bill in two.
“It’s our hope that the NDP government will recognize that these compassionate care components are separate and distinct from the labour code changes that require greater consultation.”
Now is simply not the time for radical labour code changes, said De Jong.
“Alberta is in a difficult situation,” he said. “This bill means extra costs for employers and weakened investor confidence at a time when we’re facing many challenges.”
Moira Potter is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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