Thursday, March 23, 2017

Alberta Labour's 2017-20 business plan

Alberta Labour has released its 2017-2020 business plan. Business plans provide a high-level indication of where government departments are headed and how they will assess their progress.

Employment Standards will need to make some significant performance improvements to meet its targets this year. Its rate of investigation completions within 180 days (six months!) of a complaint being filed was 49% in 2015/16. By the end of the 2017/18, it is expected to be at 60%, increasing to 70% by 2019/20.

Over the past few years the target has been 63% and the government has achieved in the mid-40%. Achieving 60% (let alone 70%) will be a challenging. As I noted in November, there were only 45 employment standards officers in Alberta and they are responsible for roughly 80% of paid employees. The options the government has include:
  1. Hire more employment standards officers.
  2. Change the internal processes to increase speed of resolution.
  3. Hope the volume of claims goes down.
The government has implemented changes in its internal processes in the past few years. This netted a four percent increase in completion rates. I suspect that this kind of efficiency gain is mostly tapped out. Completion speed may also be affected by the surge of complaints noted in 2016 (it is unclear if this surge continues).

One of the internal changes the government could make is to increase voluntary settlements between workers and employers. The current rate of settlement is 79% and the target for next year of 85%.

The key risk of emphasizing voluntary settlement is that this often requires workers to give up some of the wages they are entitled to in order to get resolution (otherwise, why would the employer agree to pay up?). This sits uneasily with the basic notion of employment standards as a set of minimum entitlements. An interesting indicator would be wages owed versus wages recovered through settlement.

The government is also seeking an increase in OHS inspections, from 9100 in 2015/16 to 10,500 in 2017/18. (The 2015/16 inspection total was reported at over 9500 in the annual report, but there may be some data definition differences). A longer-term target is 11,500 inspections.

This is a positive trend but needs to be seen in the context of (1) there being 150,000ish employers in Alberta and (2) some inspections will be re-inspections of employers found to be non-compliant. 

Basically, inspection rates remain very low and, overall, Alberta continues to have a complaint-based system of enforcement. This system relies upon workers to report violations, which they may not be able to identify and which they may be scared to report.

An interesting omission in the Business Plan is any specific mention of the Canada Jobs Grant (CJG). This federally funded (but provincially administered) program was foisted on the provinces by former federal employment minister Jason Kenney in 2013/14.

The CJG was supposed to help unemployed workers connect to the labour market and, by covering 66% of training costs, encourage employers to spend more on skills development. It displaced the 2008-2014 Labour Market Agreements (LMAs) that were doing a good job of helping unemployed and disadvantaged workers attach to the labour market and stripped funding away from LMA-funded training programs.

A preliminary evaluation of the CJG on behalf of the provinces and territories hints that the CJG is less effective at helping unemployed Canadians attach to the labour market than was the LMA. Of particular concern is evidence that suggests the CJG has shifted training dollars from programs that benefited diverse groups of unemployed Canadians to training that benefits (mostly) white, able-bodied men who already have post-secondary credentials and who are already employed in high-skill jobs (the BC report in the link above is particularly searing). 

-- Bob Barnetson

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