Work-life balance can’t be mandated, employers say

Helping workers find balance requires flexibility — not rules, Blackburn told

Meeting the needs of employees for work-life balance for the most part means being flexible as an employer, but flexibility isn’t something that can be mandated by law.

That’s what a roomful of employers told Minister of Labour Jean-Pierre Blackburn in Toronto, one of the stops he made in a tour of four cities last month to consult with workers and employers on recommended changes to the Canada Labour Code.

“Regulating flexibility is somewhat of an oxymoron,” said Sylvia Chrominska, Scotiabank’s executive vice-president of human resources and public, corporate and government affairs.

Part three of the Canada Labour Code, which sets out labour standards for federally regulated sectors, has not undergone major changes since 1965. A two-year commission to review the code, headed by Harry Arthurs, former dean of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, wrapped up last fall with a 300-page report containing 172 recommendations.

Jean-Pierre Blackburn told Canadian HR Reporter he intended to make recommendations to his cabinet colleagues on the report in the spring but said, for the time being, he wasn’t ready to share his views on any of the recommendations.

“My responsibility now as minister of labour is to listen to groups, unions, employers, employees. How do they feel about those 172 recommendations? Do they agree that we should be more involved in compliance? Do they agree that we should have more flexibility? Do they agree that we should introduce a minimum wage for the federal jurisdiction and what would be the impact?” said Blackburn. “And what about hiring agencies? We realize that many of those hiring agencies are more interested in serving their clients than their employees. What about autonomous workers? In my mind, this is the most important change in the labour force. They have no protection at all. We cannot ignore this change in the labour force.”

The recommendations covered a broad range of topics including coverage, contract termination, compliance and administration. But two themes also garnered much of the commission’s attention: vulnerable workers and control over work hours.

With respect to vulnerable workers, Arthurs’ report included such recommendations as:

•conducting a further study on practices in the temp staffing industry;

•making both the temp agencies and their client organizations jointly responsible for unpaid wages and benefits;

•requiring employers to consider temp employees for permanent positions after they’ve worked one year for an employer; and

•granting temp workers statutory rights after they’ve worked for a year.

Referring to the recommendation for a federal minimum wage, Blackburn said he was surprised by what he heard in Montreal, when he visited the Confederation of National Trade Unions, the worker advocacy group Au Bas d’Echelle and the Canadian Federation for Independent Business.

“(These are) three different views but interestingly, they have one consensus,” said Blackburn. “The three groups said no, the federal government should not introduce a minimum wage. The federal government should respect provincial jurisdictions in this matter because there are differences between the territories and provinces. ‘You should keep it like it is.’ I was surprised to hear this opinion.”

As for control over work hours, the recommendations were many. They included:

•keeping the current 40-hour work week and maximum work week of 48 hours, but also more flexibility for workers who prefer a different work time arrangement;

•prohibiting employers from firing or penalizing an employee who can’t work overtime or come in to work without notice;

•extending bereavement leave up to seven days and allowing employees to start the leave whenever;

•extending parental leave to a full 37 weeks for each parent;

•eliminating the rule that compassionate care be limited to those caring for someone “likely to die within 26 weeks”; and

•introducing new leave benefits such as 10 days a year without pay for family responsibilities.

Blackburn asked the 20-plus employers in attendance in Toronto whether they would have a problem providing 10 days of leave a year, paid or unpaid.

Most of the participants, who came from both the federally and provincially regulated sectors, said they were already providing such benefits. But most also said that to have to provide such benefits by law would make things difficult.

Even at a large organization such as Canada Post, which employs 75,000, “if we can’t find casual employees to replace someone on leave, even in larger sites, we’re going to be asking people to do more overtime,” said Gerard Power, vice-president, general counsel and corporate secretary. “When I talk to employees, they say what really annoys them is the person who didn’t show up to work today. Because that means they all have to work harder.”

At smaller workplaces, flexibility is provided for through individual accommodation and informal arrangements, said Donna Lero, research director for the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being in Guelph, Ont., which has done a study on work-life issues at small enterprises.

“There are people who choose small business for that purpose. They have worked in a large organization where, despite the variety of practices, they have found that the bureaucracy or their immediate manager does not provide the kind of culture that provide them with the flexibility they want,” said Lero.

But if smaller businesses are often better able to offer flexibility, they’re usually less able to provide the paid leaves mandated by law, she added.

“This is often where you get resistance from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business,” she said. “They just don’t have the resources to provide paid leaves.”

Chrominska also stressed the importance of immediate managers. Employees have unique needs in juggling work and personal obligations, she said.

“My unique needs can’t be foretold by policy. I need policies that allow me and my manager to find creative and unique solutions to my unique needs,” said Chrominska.

“At Scotiabank, our people managers use their flexibility to find the best alternatives to meet their employees’ needs and their discretion to make the right decision at the right time when it’s needed.”

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