Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Some labour implications of the Final Report of MMIWG Inquiry

A few weeks back, the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls was released. While I haven't finished reading the report yet, Volume 1a contains two sections of particular interest to human resource and labour relations.

The first section is a deep dive into the relationship between resource-extraction projects and violence against Indigenous women and children (starting on page 584). The report specifically examines the impact of transient (or migrant) workers on receiving communities and their citizens as well as workplace harassment, shift work, additions and economic insecurity. The nub of it is that the structure of employment associated with these projects creates and/or amplifies negative consequences for Indigenous women and children.

The second section is a deep dive into the sex industry (starting on page 656), in which Indigenous women and girls are often participants. This section does a nice job of capturing the nuances of sex work and the impact Canada’s colonial legacy has on the dynamics of sex work. It also highlights the importance of an intersectional analysis when examining how individuals experience sex work.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Bill 2 grinds wages, complicates payroll, and impedes union drives

This post originally appeared on the Parkland Institute blog on May 28, 2019.

The second bill introduced by Alberta’s new United Conservative Party (UCP) government is An Act to Make Alberta Open for Business. In conjunction with an Order in Council, if passed this act will reduce the minimum wage for many workers under 18, reduce all workers' access to general holiday pay and overtime premiums, and make it harder for workers to unionize.

According to Premier Jason Kenney, these changes are designed to increase employment levels and fairness in the workplace: 
Our government ran on a promise to get Albertans, especially young people, back to work. … With Bill 2 and the youth minimum wage, we are restoring fairness and balance to the workplace and getting 'Help Wanted' signs back in the windows of Alberta businesses.
Minister of Labour Jason Copping asserts these changes will also reduce red tape and increase the employment of minors, saying, 
We need to encourage employers to create opportunities for all workers. These changes would help Alberta's businesses to do just that. We’re bringing back balance, cutting red tape and making it more affordable to hire teens for their first jobs.
An examination of Bill 2 suggests that it will, in fact, yield none of these claimed benefits. Instead, it will reduce workers' income, make payroll administration more complex, and impede workers seeking to join a union.

Youth minimum wage

Effective June 26, the minimum wage for workers under 18 who attend school will drop from $15 per hour to $13 per hour. The government will (somehow) allow employers to immediately reduce the wages for these workers.

During weeks when school is in session, the first 28 hours worked by minors who are in school will be paid at $13 per hour while subsequent hours will be paid at $15 per hour. During weeks when school is not in session (e.g., summer, Christmas, spring break), all hours will be paid at the lower $13 rate.

The premise underlying this 13 percent reduction in the minimum wage is that employers will hire more minors who are in school. It certainly is possible that, given the opportunity to hire minors at $13 per hour or adults at $15 per hour, some employers will hire more minors who are in school. Shifting who gets hired will not, however, change overall employment levels.

I was unable to locate any academic research addressing the impact of reducing the minimum wage for minors. While it is possible that employers will use the savings they realize to hire more workers, this seems unlikely. Hiring is typically driven by demand for a product or service. Reducing wage levels does not increase demand. What we are likely to see is that employers (who are in business to make money) will simply pocket these savings.

What this change does do is significantly increase payroll complexity for employers (particularly small businesses) by requiring them to:
  1. know which employees are students,
  2. know when each employee’s school is in session or on a break,
  3. vary each employee’s hourly wage depending upon hours worked and whether school is in session, and
  4. change workers’ wages and payroll calculations when workers turn 18.
This effect seems at odds with the UCP’s election promise to reduce red tape. To avoid the red tape the UCP is creating, some employers may simply cap minors at 28 hours of work per week. Other employers may cope by simply paying all minors $13 an hour in all instances and waiting to see if anyone complains (unfortunately, most minors won't).

The government has also promised to allow employers to quickly reduce the wages of minors who are in school via the provision of notice. This promise directly interferes with employment contracts negotiated between employers and employees in a way that negatively affects the more vulnerable party (i.e., young workers). It is unclear how the government’s requirement for notice would satisfy the usual requirements for a contractual change. Neither Bill 2 nor the associated Order in Council addresses this issue.

Overall, reducing the minimum wage for minors who are in school benefits employers by reducing their labour costs. These savings may be offset by the increasing administrative complexity created by this change. It is unclear how this change would increase overall employment.

General holiday pay

At present, Alberta workers are entitled to nine paid general holidays (often called statutory holidays) immediately after hiring. General holiday pay is complicated, but the basic rules are:
  1. To be eligible for holiday pay, your must work your regularly scheduled shifts before and after the holiday as well as on the holiday, if asked.
  2. If you do not work the holiday, you get your average daily pay rate (regardless of when the holiday falls).
  3. If you do work the holiday you either get 1.5 times your hourly rate for hours worker or your regular rate plus another day off with pay.
Bill 2 proposes adding an additional requirement that you must be employed by the employer for the 30 days preceding the holiday. Bill 2 also proposes that if a holiday falls on a day you do not normally work and you do not work the holiday, you are not entitled to general holiday pay. Essentially, the UCP is adding back in much of the complexity that employers asked the former NDP government to remove.

It is very difficult to calculate the exact effect of this change. Overall, employers will see a reduction in labour costs and workers will see a reduction in take-home pay. Employers will face additional work and complexity in determining who is entitled to pay for each holiday. Workers with irregular or flexible schedules may be affected more significantly than workers who work a standard work week.

Overtime premiums

Bill 2 also proposes reducing the rate at which banked overtime is paid out. At present, if you work more than 8 hours in a day or 44 hours in a week, you are entitled to be paid at a rate of 1.5 times your normal rate of pay for these overtime hours.

The Employment Standards Code allows employers and employees to enter into overtime banking arrangements, whereby overtime is not immediately paid out. Instead, employees can draw down their banked overtime to take time off with pay at a rate of 1.5 hours off for every hour of overtime worked. If the employee does not draw down the banked time, it is then paid out at the overtime rate.

Overtime banking is often used in industries subject to seasonal fluctuations. Workers bank overtime during a busy period and then draw down this time to maintain their employment (and benefits) during the slow season.

The UCP is proposing that banked overtime taken as time off would be taken at straight time. In effect, employees would lose the overtime premium they are due. While employees could elect to cash out their banked overtime (and get the premium), if they are using overtime to bridge slow seasons (to avoid a layoff), cashing out overtime may trigger a layoff (thereby terminating their benefits).

This change benefits employers by providing them with a way to avoid paying overtime premiums to workers. It is unclear how this would increase workplace fairness or increase employment. Indeed, incentivizing employers to use overtime (by cheapening it) will likely reduce employment levels.

Mandatory certification votes

At present, when workers wish to join a union, a union files an application for certification with the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB). Certification applications must include evidence that at least 40 percent of employees in the proposed bargaining unit support the union's application. If the union provides evidence that more than 65 percent of workers support the union, then the ALRB will certify the union as the bargaining agent for the unit without the need for a vote. This is called card-check certification.

If the union cannot demonstrate greater than 65 percent support, then the ALRB will order a vote of all of the workers in the proposed bargaining unit to determine if the majority of voters support the application.

Bill 2 proposes eliminating card-check certification and requiring mandatory certification votes in all certification applications. The research from across Canada is pretty clear: card-certification results in more applications to join unions and a greater success rate. We have seen this dynamic already take effect in Alberta.

The reason for this effect is that card-check certification eliminates the opportunity for employers to interfere in what should be a free choice by employees. One Canadian study found that 80 percent of employers oppose certification drives, 60 percent do so overtly, and 20 percent take action that is illegal (e.g., threatening or dismissing workers).

Employer interference tends to put a chill on the organizing drive. Research from both British Columbia and Ontario shows that, as soon as the rules switch to mandatory votes, the number and success rate of union drives drops significantly.

Requiring certification votes is often justified as fundamentally democratic, and as a way to prevent union intimidation of workers. Equating certification votes with the electoral process ignores the fact that, when workers cast a vote in a federal or provincial election, the government doesn't spend the campaign period threatening to fire workers if they vote for a different party.

Such claims also ignore that elections and union drives are fundamentally different. Government policies profoundly affect every aspect of our lives and can't be avoided (unless we abandon our country and citizenship). By contrast, the selection of a bargaining agent affects only certain aspects of our employment and the effects (typically higher wages and greater job security) can be avoided by changing jobs.

The idea that mandatory votes prevent the intimidation of workers is misleading. Requiring mandatory votes may prevent (very uncommon) union intimidation of workers, but it does so at the cost of facilitating (very common) employer intimidation of workers.

Eliminating card-check (i.e., requiring votes on every application) will reduce the number of workplaces that are unionized. Because unionized workplaces typically better terms and conditions of employment, reducing the number of workplaces that unionize financial benefits employers and financially penalizes workers.


Bill 2 is clearly designed to reduce labour costs for Alberta employers. Bill 2 achieves this by transferring these costs to workers, in the form of reduced compensation. There is no evidence or reason to believe that this transfer of costs will result in an overall increase in employment rates, and the mechanisms set out in Bill 2 will also substantially increase payroll complexity for employers (particularly small businesses).

Eliminating card-check certification increases employers' abilities to interfere in workers' decisions about whether they wish to be represented by a union or not. The result will be fewer successful union drives. This change will clearly decrease fairness in the workplace in order to help employers avoid unions.

At the media conference announcing Bill 2, Premier Kenney stated that additional labour law reform will be introduced in the fall. This may include the introduction of a lower minimum wage for serving staff (following the appointment of a task force), restrictions on how unions can spend dues collected from members, and changes the essential services rules for public-sector unions.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Video: Sex work and sex workers

I’m currently working with a subject matter expert to develop and launch a course about sex work and sex workers (LBST 415). I'd guess we are about a year from launch, but who knows. In the interim, this video does a nice job of introducing the topic of sex work (specific to the UK).

 -- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

55 picket Athabasca U’s contract stalling

On Tuesday, 35 members (including 10 first timers!) and 20 allies of the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) picketed an Athabasca University meeting at the Matrix Hotel in Edmonton. This was AUFA’s fourth information picket and we ran out of signs!

The purpose this picket was to show AUFA members’ continued displeasure with AU’s foot dragging at the bargaining table and that a work stoppage will result in both operational disruption and reputational harm. Passersby were handed leaflets outlining AUFA’s concerns.

AUFA and AU are scheduled for two days of informal mediation on June 17 and 18. AUFA’s most recent settlement proposal is:
  • a two-year wage freeze,
  • a clear process by which long-serving term employees become permanent, and 
  • two further years of waged to be negotiated (and resolved by arbitration).  

This proposal is broadly consistent with other provincial settlements as well as the settlement recently reached between AU and its support staff.

The Board of Governors bargaining team has stalled bargaining since May 2018. It delayed the exchange of proposals, it advanced unreasonable proposals (that it has since abandoned), and it has been unavailable to bargain multiple times for periods of up to two months. It has also stalled the negotiation of an essential services agreement (which is a pre-cursor to formal mediation).

AUFA appreciates the participation of members and/or representatives from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, the MacEwan University Faculty Association, and the NorQuest College Faculty Association who joined our picket line this afternoon.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Athabasca remains non-compliant with OHS Act

Creative Commons:
Last fall, Athabasca University (AU) failed an occupational health and safety (OHS) inspection and was issued several compliance orders. Many of the requirements AU violated came into effect on June 1, 2018, after legislative changes were passed in late 2017.

The more substantive compliance orders were:
  • The employer could not provide proof that workers are aware of their rights and duties under the OHS Act, Regulations, and Code, breaching s. 3(1)(b) of the OHS Act.
  • The employer could not provide proof that a new worker orientation or other safety training is provided to workers, breaching s. 3(2) of the OHS Act.
  • The workplace violence prevention plan (policy and procedures) did not meet the requirements of Sections 390.1 & 390.2 as required under Section 390 of the OHS Code.
In April, AU was still not compliant with these requirements. AU is apparently in the process of hiring a training vendor so OHS extended that order deadline to July 28, 2019.

AU’s experience with the OHS regime suggests several things:
  1. Even large, sophisticated employers with dedicated OHS staff don’t necessarily comply with the law unless the law is enforced. AU had plenty of warning of these changes and took no action to comply until the faculty association complained to the government. Absent a complaint, AU would likely have remained noncompliant.
  2. OHS basically won’t enforce the OHS Act. Instead, it issues orders and grants employers extensions. AU’s joint OHS committee was told by the employer co-chair that, even if AU missed the July deadline, AU will just get another extension. Absent government consequences for violations, there is effectively no law. Which maybe helps explain Alberta’s high level of workplace injury and death.
AU may, of course, just be stalling in the hope that the UCP government rolls back worker safety rights in the spring session. Overall, AU’s behaviour on OHS is clearly contrary to AU’s espoused “I-Care” values of integrity, adaptability, and respect.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

National workplace fatalities and injury report

Sean Tucker and Anya Keefe (University of Regina) have again released a national overview of occupational fatality and injury rates in CanadaThis report usefully aggregates national data, with 2017 data being available. 

Looking at fatality numbers, we see that Alberta had highest number of injury related fatalities while Ontario had the highest number of disease-related fatalities.

When fatalities are corrected for population size (fatals per 100,000 full-time workers), Alberta continues to have the highest rate of fatalities caused by injury among provinces with more than 100,000 workers. (Both Saskatchewan and Alberta have seen further increases in 2018.)

Looking at fatalities caused by occupational disease, Newfoundland and Labrador lead the way in 2017 (9.1/100,000), followed by Alberta (4.5).

Looking at lost-time claim rates, Manitoba lead the way in 2017.

Alberta’s historical rates are displayed graphically below.

One of the challenges noted by Tucker and Keefe is the limited quality of the injury data (derived from rolled up WCB stats) and the need for better metrics. There is, of course, also a need for more effective prevention activities.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Athabasca hides cost of bargaining

Athabasca University is refusing to divulge how much money it was spent driving bargaining with the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) to impasse.

The university’s unwillingness to quantify the costs of its behaviours suggests that those costs are high. An estimate would be along these lines:

Cost ($)
Preparation, ESA, Misc Litigation
Communications Consultant


These are intentionally conservative estimates and include lawyer costs and staff time. I’d be happy to publish the actual number if AU wants to make it available.

That AU has spent nearly $300,000 to reach impasse is pretty galling, given that the provincial settlement pattern is obvious and this could have been wrapped up in two days of bargaining last summer.

$282k is a lot of money and could have been used to: 
  1. Waived tuition and fees on a course for more >400 undergraduate students,
  2. Hired three additional professors or professional staff,
  3. Provided decent and free meals for graduates at convocation, or
  4. Provided a $700 signing bonus to all AUFA members.

 Attempting to frame AU’s profligate spending on bargaining as being done with the “utmost respect” for the bargaining unit and for students is transparently false.

I look forward to seeing the results from the impending climate/engagement survey that the university is planning on doing. Twenty bucks says they are worse than last time, when only 25% of staff had trust in senior executives.

-- Bob Barnetson