Alberta tackles health and safety, Quebec protects low-wage workers

Health and safety, workers’ compensation and changes to minimum wages are the common themes across Canada in the most recent legislative changes.

Alberta

Proposed changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act would streamline the process for updating workplace health and safety rules, allow for the publication of the names of employers with the best and worst safety performances, increase maximum fines and penalties for non-compliance, and introduce alternative penalties and sentencing for prosecutions.

The Adult Interdependent Relationships Act, Bill 30, includes amendments to several provincial acts that address the needs of unmarried Albertans involved in committed, interdependent relationships. The bill received first reading on May 7 and has been carried over from the spring sitting. It covers a range of personal relationships that fall outside the traditional institution of marriage, including committed platonic relationships where two people agree to share emotional and economic relationships.

British Columbia

The Workers Compensation Amendment Act (No. 2), 2002 received Royal Assent on Oct. 31. The act reduces the levels of review and appeal of Workers Compensation Board decisions from three to two, creates a new internal review function to improve the quality of initial decision-making, and establishes a new, independent appeal tribunal as the final level of appeal for workers’ compensation matters.

The Human Rights Code Amendment Act also received Royal Assent on Oct. 31. The objective of the amendments was to revise the system for handling human rights complaints so as to resolve them as quickly and efficiently as possible. The new system has eliminated the Human Rights Commission and makes the Human Rights Tribunal directly responsible for receiving, investigating and adjudicating cases. The tribunal is also supposed to emphasize mediation, to encourage faster and less expensive resolution of complaints.

Oct. 31 was quite a busy day in the B.C. legislature. The Public Sector Employers Amendment Act, 2002 also received Royal Assent that day. It limits the severance and accumulated benefits payments for senior public servants.

Manitoba

Bill 27, The Safer Workplaces Act, received Royal Assent on Aug. 9 and all provisions are now in effect. This amendment to The Workplace Safety and Health Act clarifies the duties of employers, supervisors, contractors, owners and suppliers and gives them new responsibilities. A written safety and health program is now required for workplaces with 20 or more workers. In addition, there are changes to provisions respecting discriminatory actions, the appeals process, and safety and health information.

New Brunswick

A number of discussion papers regarding workers compensation have been released. The papers invite comments on the issues of compulsory employer coverage; penalties, fines and sanctions under the Workers’ Compensation Act; workers’ compensation coverage for volunteers; and workers’ compensation coverage for workers under 21. Another discussion paper on penalties, fines and sanctions under Occupational Health and Safety Act has also been released.

New Brunswick’s minimum wage rose from $5.90/hour to $6/hour on Aug. 1.

Newfoundland and Labrador

The minimum wage rose from $5.75/hour to $6/hour on Nov. 1.

Nova Scotia

The minimum wage rose from $5.80/hour to $6/hour on Oct. 1.

Ontario

Bill 176, the Family Health Benefits Act, 2002, received second reading Sept. 26. If passed, the bill would amend the Employment Standards Act so that when the employment of a person who has been employed for at least 12 months with an employer ends, the person is entitled to have the employer continue to provide, offer or arrange for the benefit plans that it provided, offered or arranged for the employee during the period of employment. The period of continuation would last for six months following the end of the employment or whatever shorter period the parties agree to. The employee would be responsible for the full cost of all benefit plans that are continued.

Bill 179, the Government Efficiency Act, 2002 (second reading in November) would revise and clarify provisions of a number of acts, including the Employment Standards Act.

On Nov. 7, Bill 198 received second reading. It includes amendments to the Pension Benefits Act. For more information click on the "Related Articles" link at the bottom of this page. The bill proposes a new surplus distribution scheme. If passed, amendments would provide that:

•A plan sponsor need not distribute surplus on partial pension plan wind-up, unless the plan document requires it to do so.

•On a full plan wind-up, anyone involved in the wind-up can apply to the Superintendent on behalf of all other individuals affected by the wind-up for consent to the surplus being paid to those in the group.

•A plan sponsor can apply to the Superintendent for a payment of surplus from a continuing or wound-up pension plan. If the plan is continuing, the surplus payment cannot reduce the plan assets below a prescribed level.

•A decision of the Superintendent can be appealed to the Financial Services Tribunal, but the tribunal’s decision could no longer be appealed to the Divisional Court.

•In case there are concurrent applications for the payment of surplus, there is a priority system for applications.

•If plan beneficiaries are not located, any amounts owing to them may eventually revert to the Crown.

•Employer distribution of surplus to plan members and former members is subject to certain conditions, which have not yet been announced.

The proposed legislation would apply retroactively to surplus applications made on or after Jan. 1, 1988, with some exceptions.

Following the Ontario Court of Appeal’s much-anticipated ruling on the Monsanto pension surplus case, the province put pension changes on hold while it reviews the decision. The ruling is more favourable to plan members than the legislation. (For updates as they develop watch www.hrreporter.com.)

Quebec

Quebec is taking steps to protect an estimated 60,000 farm workers, caregivers and resident domestics and enhancing protection for all workers in the province.

The law setting labour standards for the 58 per cent of Quebec workers who are not unionized is being expanded to cover the above groups, making them eligible to receive the $7.20 hourly minimum wage and protection from wrongful dismissal among other things. Unionized employees are protected by their contracts but are entitled to the minimum standards set out in the legislation.

Jean Rochon, Quebec’s Labour Minister, said most of those affected by the new legislation are young people or women in low-wage occupations.

Highlights from Bill 153 include:

•An employee fired without cause will be able to get her job back or win a cash settlement if she has been on the job for two years. Previously, the wrongful-dismissal provision applied only after three years.

•Employees can refuse to work more than four hours of overtime;

•Employees will be able to take 10 days off without pay, double the current five days, for family reasons.

•Unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks will be allowed to care for gravely-ill relatives.

•Part-time employees, who don’t currently benefit from statutory holidays, would have to be paid an additional one-twentieth of their earnings in the four weeks before the statutory holiday.

•Employees would have legal recourse against abusive employers, under measures in the bill to counter psychological harassment.

Rochon said there will be some exceptions to the rules such as nurses, who would not be able to refuse to work extra shifts if it endangered the health and safety of others, or in cases where leaving work would put the public’s safety in jeopardy.

Quebec employers were quick to denounce the changes. The Conseil du Patronat, one of the most vocal employer groups in the province, said the changes add a regulatory burden and the government did not take the impact on business costs and job creation into account.

The minimum wage rose from $7/hour to $7.20/hour on Oct. 1.

Saskatchewan

The minimum wage rose from $6.35/hour to $6.65/hour on Nov. 1.

Yukon

As of Nov. 1, all workers (subject to some exceptions) are entitled to receive at least the minimum wage, regardless of age.

Federal

Old Age Security (OAS) benefits increased on Oct. 1 by 1.2 per cent to $449.32/month. The maximum Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and Allowance payments also increased by the same 1.2 per cent.

Marcia McDougall is a consultant with Hewitt Associates. She may be contacted at (416) 225-5001. She is grateful to Hewitt’s research consultants for their assistance in the preparation of this column.

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