Legislatures busy changing employment laws

Canadian legislatures have been busily reviewing a number of employment laws, especially those related to employment standards, workers compensation and occupational health and safety. What’s more, changes to several general laws also will affect HR practitioners.

Minimum wage

Ontario’s general minimum wage increased from $7.15 to $7.45 per hour on Feb. 1, 2005. The rate for students under 18 years old who are employed for 28 hours a week or fewer rose from $6.70 to $6.95 per hour. The rate for liquor servers increased from $6.20 to $6.50 per hour.

Alberta has announced that it will increase its minimum wage for the first time since 1999. The rate will rise from $5.90 to $7 per hour, an increase of nearly 20 per cent. The increase will come into effect on Sept. 1, 2005. The weekly minimum, and the monthly minimum for domestic employees, will increase accordingly. In addition, the rates chargeable for meals and lodging provided by the employer will also increase.

Both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are conducting annual reviews of their minimum wage rates. Nova Scotia’s current minimum wage, as of Oct. 2004, is $6.50 an hour. The current minimum wage in P.E.I. is $6.80. The last increase in P.E.I. was effective Jan. 1, 2005.

Hours of work

In December, Ontario passed Bill 63, the Employment Standards Amendment Act (Hours of Work and Other Matters). The new law came into force on March 1, 2005.

The new act requires employers that want employees to work more than 48 hours in a week to: (1) give non-unionized employees an information sheet, published by the Ministry of Labour, on rights and responsibilities regarding hours of work and overtime pay; (2) obtain written agreement from the employee, or from the union if the workplace is unionized; and (3) receive approval from the Ministry of Labour. If the ministry has not made a decision on an application within 30 days, a limited number of excess weekly hours can be worked, provided certain conditions are met.

Saskatchewan has also been looking at its hours of work laws, particularly the “additional hours” provisions of The Labour Standards Act. Section 13.4 of the Act was passed in 1994, but was never proclaimed into force.

Last month, Saskatchewan introduced Bill 206 to repeal the unproclaimed section. Instead, a commission has been set up to study and make recommendations on the needs of part-time and other vulnerable workers, such as those working in non-standard or low-paid work arrangements. In particular, the committee will look for ways to improve these workers’ access to employment income, employment benefits and work opportunities.

The commission will submit a report and recommendations to the government by Dec. 15, 2005. Bill 206 will come into effect the day it receives royal assent.

Compassionate care leave

Amendments to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Labour Standards Act granting job-protected compassionate care leave came into effect on Jan. 1, 2005. The leave period may extend up to eight consecutive weeks, plus an additional three days granted at the employer’s discretion. Employees must have been employed at least 30 days to qualify. Leave is available to provide care or support to a family member who has a serious medical condition with a significant risk of death within 26 weeks. “Family member” is defined as: a spouse or cohabiting partner, a child or child of a spouse or cohabiting partner, a parent or a parent’s spouse or common-law partner, or any other person as may be prescribed by regulation.

Pension ‘grow-in’ benefits

Nova Scotia’s Pension Benefits Regulation has been amended regarding “grow-in benefits” under the Pension Benefits Act. Grow-in benefits allow eligible pension plan members to receive enhanced early retirement benefits when a defined benefit plan winds up.

The amendment requires that upon full or partial pension plan wind-up, grow-in benefits may only be paid after payment of all pension, deferred pension, ancillary benefits or other benefits to which members are entitled. The amendment came into force on Dec. 20, 2004.

Human rights

Three New Brunswick bills, taken together, have added two new prohibited grounds of discrimination in that province: social condition, and political belief or activity. Bill 24, An Act to Amend the Human Rights Act, was initially slated to take effect on Dec. 31, 2004. However, Bill 18, An Act to Amend An Act to Amend the Human Rights Act, delayed the application of Bill 24 until Jan. 31, 2005.

Meanwhile, “social condition” was defined by New Brunswick Bill 12, (also called An Act to Amend An Act to Amend the Human Rights Act.) “Social condition” includes being part of a socially identifiable group that suffers from social or economic disadvantage based on source of income, occupation or level of education. Discrimination on the basis of social condition is allowable where established by an act, regulation or government program to be designated under the Human Rights Act.

Smoke-free places

Saskatchewan’s public places became smoke-free as of Jan. 1. The Tobacco Control Amendment Act prohibits smoking in all enclosed public places such as restaurants, bars, bingo halls, casinos, bowling alleys, taxis and private clubs. Naturally, this precludes smoking by employees in those locations, as well as by members of the public. Other amendments give municipalities the jurisdiction to enact bylaws to restrict smoking in outdoor places such as open-air sports events and entrances to public buildings.

Saskatchewan public health inspectors are responsible for enforcing the act. Their initial focus toward enforcement has been informational and educational, rather than confrontational.

Limitation periods

Saskatchewan Bill 51, The Limitations Act, received royal assent last June and has been proclaimed in force as of May 1, 2005. Limitation periods set the time limits within which legal actions must be started.

The new act provides a standard two-year limitation period for civil legal actions, which starts when the person bringing the action first knew, or ought to have known, that an injury had occurred. This would apply, for example, to claims of wrongful dismissal, or to court actions for alleged improper pension administration.

An ultimate limitation period bars all actions after 15 years from the events that gave rise to the action, regardless of when they were discovered.

The new act includes provisions for a few special circumstances: for minors or mentally disabled persons who are not represented by a personal or property guardian, or where a defendant fraudulently conceals the fact that an injury occurred. In addition, it allows parties to agree to extend the limitation period in a particular instance.

Health and safety

Newfoundland and Labrador’s Bill 64, the Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Act, allows the appointment of a workplace health and safety designate to monitor the health, safety and welfare of workers if a workplace employs fewer than six people. The designate can be a member of management or the owner/operator of the business. Previously, the act required the designation of a worker health and safety representative not connected with management if a workplace employed fewer than 10 workers. Bill 64 received royal assent Dec. 16, 2004.

Same-sex marriage

Ontario’s Bill 171, An Act to Amend Various Statutes in Respect of Spousal Relationships, amends 73 Ontario statutes to reflect the fact that, since June 10, 2003, it has been possible for same-sex couples to marry in Ontario. The bill’s general approach is to replace existing terminology and use the term “spouse” to include opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples who are married or who live together in a conjugal relationship outside marriage. Bill 171 received royal assent and came into effect on March 9, 2005, except for some excluded sections that have not yet been proclaimed in force.

Sick leave notes

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) has designed a new sickness certificate template for doctors to use when providing sick notes for employees to give their employers. Although use of the form is not mandatory, doctors are being encouraged to use the form to ensure consistency and the provision of adequate information. The OMA’s policy is that sick notes are only to be provided after five days’ absence due to illness, although doctors retain the discretion to issue sick notes in cases where an employee has been absent for fewer than five days.

Parental leave benefits

The government of Canada has given final approval to a parental insurance plan in Quebec that will offer maternity and parental benefits to Quebecers different from those available under the Employment Insurance (EI) program. The agreement reflects the agreement in principle of May 2004 and provides the administrative, financial and operational provisions under which Quebec will establish its plan. The Quebec Parental Insurance Plan is expected to be implemented Jan. 1, 2006. Until then, Quebec residents will continue to have access to EI maternity and parental benefits.

Sari Sanders is a lawyer and head of Hewitt Canada’s research group. She may be contacted at (416) 225-5001 or [email protected].

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