Quebec pay equity laws causing headaches

A survey by Quebec’s HR association casts doubt on employers’ ability to meet province’s implementation deadlines

The majority of Quebec firms have hardly begun working on amending, implementing or introducing pay equity programs even though a government-imposed deadline is less than a year away, according to a recently published survey by the Quebec Order of Chartered Human Resource and Industrial Relations Counsellors.

Enacted three years ago, Quebec’s Pay Equity Act compels “every employer whose enterprise” employs 10 or more employees to redress differences in compensation due to systemic gender discrimination by next November.

But in spite of the looming deadline, only a scant 12 per cent of Quebec companies have completed their pay equity programs.

More alarmingly, at least 35 per cent of firms have yet to begin working on establishing pay equity programs while those that have begun are less than halfway through the process.

“The vast majority of HR professionals we surveyed, almost 85 per cent, stated that this law and its applications are too difficult and too complex to apply — and that explains why more than one-third of enterprises have not yet started the work based on this law,” said Genevieve Fortier, the Order’s president and director of HR at AIDS drug maker BioChem Pharma Inc.

Though brimming with good intentions, Quebec’s Pay Equity Act is far too onerous, leaving employers in the lurch to interpret a slew of undefined concepts and notions with nowhere and nobody to turn to, said Rolland Theriault, principal at consulting firm William M. Mercer.

Indeed, the law is so bewildering that it does not even clearly define “senior management officers” — an important consideration since executives are exempt from the law — nor something as basic as “employer.” Article 4 of the act states that “anyone who causes work to be done by an employee is an employer.”

“The definition of an employer is far from obvious and depending on the circumstances it is more or less elastic,” noted Theriault. “Is an employer a single enterprise? If an employer has several divisions or several facilities, does the employer have to establish several distinct pay equity programs? It’s not clear. And the list goes on and on. There are so many unresolved difficulties. This law is really complex.”

So complex that even multinationals such as Alcan are left wondering whether the pay equity program it is working on will be accepted by the Pay Equity Commission, a government body that oversees the establishment of pay equity plans. The act, for instance, enables enterprises to establish distinct pay equity programs that take into account regional disparities — something that would apply to Alcan thanks to its 21 facilities across the province. The act, however, does not clearly define the notion of regional disparities.

“It’s a real challenge for us to compare positions that are not identical but similar in different markets” all the while grappling with the notion of regional disparities, said Richard Garand, Alcan’s director of benefits and compensation.

“We’re not against the principal of pay equity but the act is compelling us to put in place a system to measure discrimination — and that’s not easy, particularly since the act leaves so many issues unresolved. We’re ending up having to interpret the law and hope that our pay equity program will be accepted — all for an effort that does not seem to be entirely productive.”

The act is so baffling and muddled that not even extending the deadline would help matters, said Fortier. Instead the Order is calling on the government to clarify the act, added Fortier, while noting that 71 per cent of HR professionals believe that the law should be simplified. And that is what ostensibly the provincial government has begun doing, no small thanks to the Order’s survey.

Not that it will help matters much, said Theriault. In fact, he asserts the act should be shelved because it is illusory to believe it will help deal a blow to systemic gender discrimination.

“This law rests on a traditional job evaluation system that is less and less in evidence today,” said Theriault. “It’s as if this law was conceived with the mind set of the 1960s, not taking into account the complexities of what a salary consists of nowadays. This law creates more problems than it solves.”

Luis Millan is a Montreal-based freelance reporter.

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