Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Alberta's 2019 injury data released

Alberta finally released its annual report on injuries and fatalities for 2019. Some of the key findings are that, from 2017 to 2019:
  • Lost-time claim numbers and rates are up slightly,
  • Modified work numbers and rates are down some, and
  • Overall, the number of disabling injuries is up slightly (likely population growth related) while the rate is down slightly. 
Industry-related data was not super surprising. Ag and forestry is the most dangerous and saw large growth in injury rates (~24%). I suspect this reflects the implementation of mandatory WCB in agriculture.

Manufacturing, processing and packaging was another sector with relatively high injury rates. We should expect this number to spike in 2020 and 2021 given the COVID waves that swept through the meat-packing plants. We’ll likely also see something similar in the public sector (particularly education and health care). We may also see this in mining, given the oilsands camp outbreaks.

There has been a long-term increase in occupational fatality rates in Alberta.

This has included a long-term reduction in the proportion of fatalities caused by motor vehicles accidents (blue bar in chart below) and an increase in workplace incidents (orange bar).

Claims related to harassment and violence doubled from 2015 to 2019. This may reflect, in part, greater awareness and acceptance of these sorts of injuries as a result of changes to the OHS Act and Code made by the New Democrats.

One of the most compelling charts is buried at the end of the document and it tracks injury rates over 10 years. Combined with the fatality rates chart above, the biggest take-away is that not much has changed. 

This suggests that the injury-prevention strategies mandated by successive Alberta governments (which have emphasized education and voluntary compliance coupled with anemic enforcement) have not really moved the needle on worker injuries or workplace safety.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

New data on injury under-reporting, claims suppression, and risk in small workplaces

Some new research updates have been published by the Institute for Work and Health. A study in BC looked at injury claiming behaviour. It found that approximately half of workers who have a work-related injury or illness that requires time away from work do not report the injury to the BC workers’ compensation system. Key explanations include workers not knowing they are entitled or how to apply or not thinking it is worth their time to do so. Further, between 4 and 13% of people with work-related injuries experience inducements or pressure from their employer not to report the injury.

You can read the full report here and a shorter policy briefing here. This table (nicked from the policy briefing) summarizes the recent evidence on underclaiming and suppression in workers' compensation claims.

The key take-aways are that there is pretty consistent evidence that only half of injured workers report injuries to the workers compensation system. That is to say, workers’ compensation data (which is basically what we use in Canada to assess injury rates and drive public policy) consistently and significantly under-estimates the true level of injury. Further, one of the factors that drives under-reporting by workers is employer claims suppression behaviour.

Interestingly, claim suppression is not the most common cause of under-reporting in the BC study. Workers not knowing to or how to report was a significant factor. This is followed by workers not thinking it was worth their while to do so (in part because some employers offer alternative forms of injury compensation).

A second study investigated the reasons underlying higher risk of injury to workers at small firms. The upshot of this study was that inadequate safety policies and procedures at smaller firms were the major source of higher injury rates. When this variable was controlled for, differences disappeared. This suggests that smaller workplaces are not intrinsically less safe and the greater risk of injury can be attenuated by improved organizational processes

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Boss makes a dollar, we make a dime...

Everyone's friend, Bonhomme (not a boss).
One of the challenges of organizing workers to resist an aggressive employer is the tendency of workers to disbelieve (at least, at first) that their employer could actually mean to treat them so badly. 

This initial denial often reflects underlying anxiety (because the boss is powerful) and manifests itself in several ways. For example, workers may:
  • question whether the union is mis-informed about what is happening or mis-understands it,
  • suggest the employer has made an innocent error and can be talked around or shown the error of their ways, or
  • try to make excuses for the employer (“they have no choice”).
Workers can eventually move past these initial responses, especially when the employer repeatedly misbehaves (which eventually creates a “the boss who cried wolf” dynamic). A sly employer can draw out the period of denial with a good “bonhomie” routine or by creative gaslighting. 

One strategy unions can use to get past this is to help workers understand that bosses really aren’t like them. Sure, they wear a skin suit and have kids and like to wakeboard and go on Disney cruises. But their world is fundamentally different.

But how to show this? Well, money talks. So a peak inside the boss's house is a great way to illustrate—in an immediate and material way—that the boss isn’t worried about where their next paycheque comes from. And, when the boss takes a wage freeze or tiny rollback, it doesn't have the same effect as when they try to push that on workers.

My most recently previous boss's house is up on the market and, through the miracle of virtual tours, we can see how the 1% really lives. The address in the posting isn’t exactly correct, based on my pre-picket scouting during our last round of bargaining. I’m not sure how long this posting will be live (the virtual tour is something) so I screen capped a few of the photos.

I’ve been to a lot of members' homes—usually for good reasons, sometimes for sad ones. None of them have come close to this size (3800 sq ft on 3/4 of an acre backing onto a pond) or level of luxury.

The main floor boosts a huge living room (with piano), dining room, kitchen, and master suite. The quality of the finishes put my house (which is pretty nice) to shame.

The master suite includes a soaker tub with its own fireplace, which is important when you need to relax after the difficult days of grinding workers’ wages.

And satin sheets will help you sleep away your guilt at pretending to care about keeping jobs in the Athabasca region, while actually moving them away.

The upstairs has an enormous bedroom (not shown), while the basement features a wet bar area that connects a massive family room with a rec room. What better place to gather your minions and hatch plans to bust your workers’ union!

The point here is that bosses superficially look like workers. But they don’t share our circumstances or our interests. And revealing that difference to workers—in material terms—can go a long way towards undercutting the boss’s messaging.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, May 20, 2021

No evidence paid sick leaves kills jobs

Canada and the US are outliers in historically having no statutory paid sick leave. Alberta’s opposition party has proposed 10 days of leave as a pandemic response measure. This logic of this proposal is basically that paid sick leave would help some sick workers decide to stay home by providing security of employment, income, and benefits. Yesterday, Alberta’s premier called paid sick leave a “job killing” proposal.

A 2010 report by the World Health Organization (in the wake of H1N1) suggests that paid sick leave has benefits that far outweigh its costs in Europe. The benefits include:
  • Access promptly medical care and the opportunity to follow treatment recommendations 
  • Recuperate more quickly 
  • Reduce the health impact on day-to-day functioning 
  • Prevent more series illnesses from developing 
  • Reduce the spreading of diseases to the workplace and community (p.6).
The costs of paid sick leave are mooted to be greater costs (for the state or employers, depending upon the arrangement), loss of productivity, and the potential for abuse by workers (i.e., taking sick days when not sick).

The WHO report suggests European costs are relatively low (averaging just under 200 Euros per year per capita), and paid sick leave is associated with greater productivity.

A US study examined the effect of sick leave mandates in several US cities and states on the number of private sector jobs. These proposals see workers accrue sick leave over time (kind of like; vacation entitlements). The upshot is that there appears to be effectively no impact on jobs numbers (i.e., sick is not a job-killing policy).

A separate study focused on New York’s employer paid sick leave mandate (which extended sick leave to millions of employees) also suggests paid sick leave is no big deal. 
  • Most employers experienced no cost increases and those who did (14%), the majority reports <3% change. 
  • More than 91% of employers reported no reduction in hiring
  • 97% of employers indicated that they did not reduce hours 
  • 98% of employers reported virtually no abuse of sick leave and percentage of no-abuse reported was higher for small businesses. 
  • 96% reported either no decline or an increase in productivity.
Basically, modest statutory sick leave provisions are a significant public health boon and can be implemented at virtually no cost. There is no credible evidence I could find in a quick search that paid sick days are “job killing”.

Not providing sick leave, by contrast, is likely to increase in the spread of COVID (as workers come to work sick for fear of losing their jobs or not being able to pay their bills). In this way, Premier Kenney’s unwillingness to consider paid sick leave is a “worker killing” policy.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 30, 2021

Presentation: Science fiction and organized labour

An interesting presentation by Olav Rokne about the the presence and absence of unions in science fiction.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Proposed changes to joint committee rules in OHS Code review

Alberta made sweeping changes to the OHS Act last year with Bill 47. Most of the OHS changes will take effect in September. Among these changes were significant rollbacks to the language around joint health and safety committees. At that time, the changes included:
  • Employers determine who sits on the committees, instead of workers electing or unions appointing the worker representatives. This allows employers to appoint compliant worker members.
  • Rules specifying the need for co-chairs (one worker and one employer), the development of procedures by the committee, meeting quorum and schedules, duration of membership, public posting of membership, and training requirements have been removed from the act. Combined with employer control over who sits on these committees, these omissions mean employers will control the committees.
  • The duties of JHSC have been reduced to receiving worker concerns, participating in the employer’s hazard assessment process, making non-binding recommendations, and reviewing inspection results. Of particular concern is the absence of any requirement for workers to participate in regular worksite inspections or the investigation of serious injuries and incidents. The right to inspect is an important duty and enshrined in most other provinces.
  • The requirement for regular (i.e., quarterly) worksite inspections appears to have been eliminated from the act.
Alberta is presently consulting on changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Code. One of the elements of the Code that is under review is the provisions for Joint OHS Committees. The consultation includes possible new wording. These proposals suggest the new OHS Code may contain some of the provisions previously eliminated from the Act. The shuffle of provisions is challenging to track, but here is my best effort.

  • Membership: Worker reps will be selected by workers or the union(s) (in a unionized workplace). A new provision would allow the employer to select worker reps if the workers/union(s) refuse. There remain no rules about the duration of membership. 
  • Terms of reference: The legislation is now silent on who establishes the rules by which the committee operates (previously this was jointly determined). This opens the door to the employer establishing the terms of reference unless the worker representatives can (somehow) resist this.
  • Co-chairs: Each “side” chooses its own co-chair but the requirement for alternate chairing of meetings is not present. Neither is the assertion that chairs can participate as full committee members (that may be a minor point).
  • Posting: The Code appears to restore the requirement that the employer post the names and contact info of committee members (although the committee can agree to alternatives to physical posting). There appear to be no requirement to post minutes such that workers can see them.
  • Quorum: The quorum requirements would be re-established. But it would no longer be explicit that meetings held and business transacted in the absence of quorum would be void.
  • Meetings: The Code allows OHS officers to convene a special meeting of the committee. There continues to no longer be any requirement for the committee to meet (ever!).
  • Inspections: The requirement for the committee (or anyone) to inspect the workplace quarterly has not been replaced and there is no requirement for the committee (or anyone) to inspect the workplace ever.
  • Training: Provisions requiring committee members take OHS training approved by the Minister are dropped and replaced with a general obligation on the employer to ensure committee members are competent to do the work of the committee. The requirement that workers be paid for taking training would be eliminated. 
These proposed changes to the OHS Act remedy some of the gaps left by Bill 47. But the following issues remain unaddressed:
  • The duties of JHSC remain very narrow (i.e., to receiving worker concerns, participating in the employer’s hazard assessment process, making non-binding recommendations, and reviewing inspection results) and this will further limit the effectiveness of committees. 
  • There is no requirement for the committee to meet (let alone regularly), for workers to participate in regular worksite inspections (or, indeed for any inspections to occur ever), or for workers the investigation of serious injuries and incidents. 
  • Training will be left to employer fiat and, if any training is offered, there is no requirement to pay workers for taking training. 
In effect, Bill 47 and these proposed changes leave Alberta’s nascent and weak OHS committees even weaker and less effective than they were before. This reinforces my belief that Labour minister Jason Copping’s assertion that Bill 47 was about “improving safety for Alberta workers” was misleading. Bill 47 was about reducing costs to employers and rendering committees less able to identify workplace hazards and push for remedy. This will result in workplaces becoming less safe.

As an OHS committee member, I wonder why I would bother to participate in such a hollow, ineffective system? It would be a much better use of my time to organize workers to do their own inspections and then orchestrate mass work refusals.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Why sectorial bargaining never takes off

The Spring 2020 issue of Labour/Le Travail included an interesting article entitled “Broader-based and sectoral bargaining in collective bargaining law reform: A historical review.” Sectoral bargaining is an alternative (actually, many alternatives) to the decentralized unionism (i.e., a single-employer bargain as with a single union over conditions at a single worksite) that as the norm in Canada.

It is often mooted as a mechanism that could offer significant benefits to workers, particularly those in small workplaces or facing precarious employment, when site-based unionization isn’t viable. There are examples of sectoral bargaining (e.g., Alberta construction registrations system) but it is not the norm and is not available to most workers.

Author Sara Slinn examines the history of labour law reform in English-speaking Canada to understand why sectoral bargaining has never really taken off. She suggests that employer resistance is part of the explanation, but recent resistance has been more moderate this historical resistance.

She suggests other explanatory factors include union resistance. This reflects concerns about losing representational rights (which I think we can understand as a proxy for members and dues), concern that multi-union arrangements may dilute individual union’s bargaining power, and concerns ab out interjurisdictional fights between unions over work. My casual observation of Alberta’s construction industry bargaining suggests these concerns are likely reasonable.

These concerns, suggests Slinn, may make labour centrals reluctant to push this issue. Governments, expecting employer resistance and not getting any pressure from labour, sensibly opt to ignore sectoral bargaining. Overall, this article makes a persuasive case about the politics that shape the uptake on this interesting idea.

-- Bob Barnetson