Law raising part-time hours faces mounting opposition

Saskatchewan business leaders call legislation an administrative nightmare

An administrative nightmare awaits Saskatchewan employers if the province enforces a law requiring them to offer part-timers more hours, say business leaders.

The labour department, along with Labour Minister Deb Higgins, held consultations with some 40 groups last month in its review of a section of the Labour Standards Act that had never been proclaimed since it was passed into law in 1994.

According to section 13.4 of the act, employers must offer part-time employees additional hours of work that become available, such as when another employee leaves a job or when the employer experiences an increase in work. The law is the first of its kind in North America.

As specified by draft regulations the labour department released early in January, existing part-timers would be entitled to added hours according to length of service and qualifications; they can turn down the additional hours if they wish. Employers, too, have a choice not to fill the available hours. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from the law.

In announcing the review, Higgins said she instructed her department to try and make the “additional hours” section work. “Our government is committed to building a prosperous economy in this province,” she said in a statement. “We believe that providing the opportunity for part-time workers to access extra hours of work will help them build good, full-time jobs, rather than forcing them to make ends meet by juggling two or three part-time jobs.”

Trying to stop the law from being proclaimed are more than 40 business associations, which have formed a new group called the Saskatchewan Business Council. Included among the employers that have spoken out against the law are the University of Saskatchewan and the cities of Regina and Saskatoon.

Warren Michelson, president of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, said one of the reasons the chamber opposes the law is that it would take away job opportunities for young people working through school or just entering the workforce.

Citing Statistics Canada figures published in Sask Trends Monitor, Michelson said part-time work in the province has been on the decline and that four out of five part-time workers in Saskatchewan work part time out of choice. (But more recent Labour Force Survey numbers released by Statistics Canada show part-time work in Saskatchewan increased by 1.7 per cent or 1,600 jobs in 2004, compared to more than a 1.4-per-cent increase — 5,500 jobs — of full-time work.)

Michelson added that although businesses are concerned about losing staffing flexibility, what he hasn’t heard are worries about the higher costs of having a larger full-time workforce. According to Saskatchewan labour standards, benefits kick in for part-time workers who work 14 hours or more, he noted.

From an HR perspective, the law would create a new layer of documentation, regardless of the size of the part-time workforce, said Jay Fuller, director of human resources at Cover-All Building Systems Inc., in Saskatoon.

Although almost all the 300 workers at Cover-All are full-time employees, said Fuller, any company with more than 50 employees that has part-time staff would have to “add another administrative stream. And that’s to track and verify that they are in compliance with this regulation. They’ll have to document who they ask, when, what seniority the person has, what qualifies the person, whether the person said yes or no. All this costs time and effort.”

And while there are collective agreements that stipulate the awarding of additional hours to part-time workers, Fuller said the difference with such collective agreements is they usually also spell out a grievance process.

By contrast, disputes resulting from this law would have to be settled before the labour board and “could get dragged out for months and months,” said Fuller.

But what really riles Fuller, more so than the mechanics of the regulation, is a certain mindset that comes with this kind of governmental interference. “Because the law uses seniority as a point of reference for the assigning of hours, it immediately imposes a culture of seniority on every business and every organization in this province, whether that’s their culture or not,” said Fuller.

“Why does the Saskatchewan government think it has to micro-manage businesses? Why does it think it has to get involved in people’s operations, in terms of assigning of jobs?”

At the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, communications officer Garnet Dishaw rejected the administrative burden argument. “Presumably, every employer who has part-time staff would have some means of recording them. And let me guess, it’s probably a list of part-time staff with their phone numbers, probably in alphabetical order.

“Now, what this new regulation would require businesses to do is rearrange that list from alphabetical to date of hire, and call them in that order. How is that going to put any company or sector of the economy into a tailspin? I don’t understand that.”

Beth Bilson, industrial relations professor at the University of Saskatchewan, dismissed the mounting opposition as the “kind that tends to rise any time there are proposed changes to labour standards. It’s the argument that any increase in labour standards makes it difficult to attract investment, reduces the flexibility that businesses have and costs them more money,” said Bilson.

“And my reaction to that is I’m always uncomfortable when any kind of economic development should take place at the expense of the most vulnerable workers. People who rely on the Labour Standards Act for their terms of employment are really at the bottom of the employment ladder.”

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