Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Alberta Labour's 2021/22 Annual Report

At the end of June, the government of Alberta dropped the annual reports for all ministries for the year ending March 31, 2022. The Labour report provides a snap-shot of government enforcement of labour laws as well as a hint at some of the outcomes. What the report addresses (and what it omits) is interesting.

For example, last year, the annual report noted that the government was sitting on a report of the minimum wage commission (struck in 2019, reporting in early 2020), The expectation was that this report recommended expanding the existing two-tiered minimum wage and that the government would use this as a pretext for reimplementing a lower wage for some servers.

That report was never released (as far as I can tell). This year, there is literally no mention of the minimum wage. Perhaps the government has given up on the idea given the struggle faced by employers to recruit servers? This, in turn, suggests that the existing minimum wage (stagnant since 2018) may be inadequate.

Or maybe, with three Labour ministers in a year, each worse than the last, the department just lost track of this issue? Anyhow, let's have a look at the various regulatory areas the government reports on.

Employment Standards

Employment standards set out the minimum terms and conditions of work. If your employer screws you, you can file a complaint. Over time, complaint numbers have dropped significantly.

There is, once again, no concrete explanation for this drop. Many things can affect complaint volume, including the number of workers and their expectation that complaining will be beneficial (e.g., result in a net gain, not result in retaliation). A 41.9% reduction in complaints since 2016/17 is pretty significant, especially since employment numbers rebounded during 2021/22.

Overall inquiries by Albertans about Employment Standards are also down. There were 131,189 phone and email inquiries in 2019/20 and only 70,826 in 20221/22 (a 46.0% reduction). Again, no compelling explanation for this change is offered. One possibility is that Alberta workers are decreasingly seeing Employment Standards as a viable way to enforce their rights. The drop since the UCP came to power is particularly striking.

There was an increase in Employment Standards enforcement this year. Instead of one administrative penalty, Alberta issued three penalties, the largest being $1500. The lack of consequences for noncompliance (beyond maybe having to pay some or all of what an employer should have paid in the first place) not only makes Alberta’s Employment Standards laws pretty toothless, but, in fact, economically incentivizes employers to cheat workers because they will likely get away with it.

Occupational Health and Safety

Alberta’s OHS system is designed to reduce workplace injuries and fatalities by educating employers and workers about safe work practices, conducting inspections to ensure compliance, and issuing orders and penalties when employers fail to operate safely.

The bump in inspections in 2020/21 was due almost entirely to additional COVID-related inspections and numbers seem to have returned to historical numbers. Almost 12,000 inspections seems like a lot of inspections, but we need to consider the context.

There were about 155,000 employers registered with the WCB. That undercounts total employers but whatever—this is back of napkin work. If we use 155,000 as a rough proxy for total employers and there were 11,798 inspections, we’re (roughly speaking), looking at a workplace being inspected once every 13 years.

If you did something more fine-grained (e.g., bigger employer pool; controlled for employers getting inspected more than once in a year), that telescopes the inspection cycle out some (maybe once per 15 years, maybe longer). The point, though, is that most worksites will effectively never get inspected.

If workplaces do get inspected, what happens? Mostly likely, if there are violations found, employers just get ordered to remedy them. But the number of compliance orders has dropped by about half since 2018/19 (the last full year of the ND government).

OHS almost never uses the enforcement tools available to it. OHS tickets dropped from 479 tickets in 2018/19 (again, the last year of the NDP government) to 32 this past year (a 93.4% drop). Of the 32 tickets issued in 2021/22, nine went to employers while the rest went to supervisors or workers. The largest ticket to an employer was $575 while the largest ticket to a worker was $230. These values have not changed in recent memory

Interestingly, the number and value of administrative penalties went up significantly this year, especially in dollar value. I don’t know what explains this. Only 11 charges were laid under the OHS Act, compared to 17 the previous year. Fines from prosecutions remained steady at $1.9m, with $1.2m being paid in the form of creative sentences (e.g., donations to community groups).

Effectiveness of Injury Prevention

So is this approach to injury prevention effective? One way to measure prevention effectiveness is to look at injury outcomes (particularly injury rates per 100 person-years worked) over time. Using a rate controls for fluctuations in the population over time and allow us to see patterns.

Alberta uses two main injury rates: lost-time claims and disabling injuries.
  • Lost-time claims are accepted are injuries that required time off work beyond the date of injury. These are usually the most serious kinds of injuries. 
  • Disabling injuries are accepted injury claims that required time off or modified work duties. 
Both rates are subject to under-reporting issues (i.e., employers pressure workers not to report). Both rates have climbed over time. While, yes, correlation is not causation, rising injury rates is highly suggestive that Alberta’s approach to injury-prevention (particularly declining consequences for operating unsafe workplaces) is not effective.

The government notes that COVID played a significant role in rising disabling injury rates, If COVID-related claims are excluded, the DI rate would be 2.32 in 2020/21 and 2.46 in 2021/22.

Labour Relations

The Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) administers and adjudicates applications and complaints about labour relations. The most interesting datapoint in the annual report is the number of certification applications (i.e., when a union applies to represent a group of workers).

In 2017, the ND government made it easier for workers to unionize by allowing card-check certification. Like every other jurisdiction where this change has been implemented, unionizing efforts increased significantly (because employers are deprived of the opportunity to meddle in the workers’ choice). In 2019, the UCP removed card check and, not surprisingly, certification dropped significantly. There are some confounding factors here (lag effects, COVID in 2020 and rising interest in unions in 2021) that we can’t control for, but that pattern is plain enough.

There are also a couple of interesting things tucked away in the details. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of days it takes for an application to get to hearing. This matters because delay usually benefits one side (almost always the employer).

The Board also continues to lag in rendering a decision in a timely manner. Again, delay tends to benefit employers.

This is partly explained as a function of writing time lost to additional administrative demands related to virtual hearings.


Overall, the administrative performance of Alberta’s labour law regime has declined over time, particularly since the UCP took office. Particularly worrying is the increase in injuries and the decline in certification applications. The underlying issue likely reflects policy directions and/or funding reductions enacted by the UCP.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, May 9, 2022

2020 national work-related fatality and injury stats

Sean Tucker and Anya Keefe from the University of Regina have released their annual report on workplace fatalities and injuries. This year’s report rolls up the 2020 data but also includes a section on COVID-related injuries and fatalities from 2020 and 2021.

The nub of the report is that, nationally in 2020:
  • There were 924 accepted WCB claims for fatalities, with about two-thirds being caused by occupationally-related diseases.
  • There were also 254,000 accepted claims for lost-time injuries.
Specific to Alberta in 2020:
  • Among provinces, Alberta had the second highest five-year average injury fatality rate, although there was a slight decline noted in 2020’s injury fatality rate.
  • Among provinces, Alberta had the third highest five-year average disease fatality rate, although there was an increase noted in 2020’s disease fatality rate.
  • Among provinces, Alberta had one of the lowest five-year average lost-time claim rates, although there was a slight increase noted in 2020’s lost-time claim rate.
I have nicked the relevant graphs from the report:

Looking at COVID claims:

Alberta had the second highest number of COVID-related fatality claims accepted (31) in 2021.
  • Alberta had the third highest level of COVID-related injury claims accepted (7846) on 2021. There were 4800 accepted in 2020.
Alberta seems to be performing markedly worse than BC (despite BC’s slightly higher population). That said, it is a bit hard to know what to make of COVID claims data at this point because they may be affected by WCB policies as much as anything else.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Alternative-causation arguments effective at sowing doubt

One strategy that manufacturers and employers use to delay the regulation of and liability for harmful substances is to make alternative-causation arguments. Basically, they say that the apparent effects caused by a harmful substance or process are actually the result of something else.

The journal Population Health has an interesting article examining the efficacy of alternative causation arguments on individual uncertainty or false certainty about the risk associated with products.

The upshot is that individuals exposed to industry-generated alternative causation messaging (that downplay the risk of harm) were more likely than a control group to be uncertain or false certain about the harms of certain products. Individuals with lower levels of knowledge about the topic were more likely to be affected.

The suggests that the alternative causation strategy is an effective one. It is one aspect of a well-established playbook of techniques that manufacturers use to avoid or delay regulating hazardous materials.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 17, 2022

More data on underreporting of workplace injuries in Ontario

The Institute for Work and Health has released results of a new study that matches emergency room visit records with workers' compensation data. In theory, all work-related injuries requiring medical treatment should be reported to Ontario's WSIB to avoid employers transferring the cost of treating workplace injuries onto the public health-care system.

The study finds that 35% to 40% of ER visits for workplace injuries were not reported to the WSIB from 2004 to 2017. This is broadly consistent with other data on under-reporting, which finds 40% to 60% of work-related injuries are not reported. 

Of the cases reported by health care professionals, 15% are not followed by workers (who should file a worker report). Further, there was a big drop in reporting beginning in 2008.

This study further demonstrates that workers' compensation injury data underreports the true level of workplace injury, even in the case of serious injuries. This raises questions about the utility of this data to assess and guide injury-prevention work. It also suggests significant cost-shifting around injury from employers to other groups (e.g., taxpayers, workers, private health benefit providers). 

Finally, this study suggests a useful way to begin correcting for under-reporting. For example, workers' compensation board could begin more aggressively following up on medical reports that do not generate worker reports to ensure these injuries are captured.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Porter on CBC

CBC has an interesting new series on called The Porter. It is set in the 1920s (in Montreal, mostly) and follows a group of Black railway porters who seek to unionize. The result is the world’s first Black union.

I’m two episodes in and quite enjoying it. There is a pretty readable introduction to this topic available here.


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Unions positively impact US workers' wages, benefits, democracy

There is an interesting new study out the US that documents the impact of unions on workers lives. Among its findings are:

On average, the 17 U.S. states with the highest union densities have:
  • higher than average minimum wages, and minimum wage sup to 40% higher than those in low-union-density states
  • higher median annual incomes 
  • more unemployed workers eligible to receive unemployment insurance benefits
  • fewer workers without health insurance
  • a greater likelihood of legislated paid sick leave laws and paid family and medical leave laws 
  • fewer restrictive voting laws.
You can read the full study at the link above.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Alberta hamstrings union dues collection

In early January, my colleague Jason Foster and I wrote about Alberta’s efforts to hamstring its unions through oppressive union financing laws. The gist of the issue is that unions will now have to categorize their expenditures as either core (basically bargaining and grievance work) or non-core (lobbying, political activity). Then unions will need to go each year to each member to get them to agree to pay dues related to non-core activities.

This policy will reduce the funding available to unions to influence labour laws and public policy, both by giving members an opt out and by forcing unions to expend more money to collect their existing dues. The political goal is to reduce an important source of public opposition to the UCP government.

It is unclear how this is going to play out. Unions may decide to just label all activities as “core activities” on the argument that everything a union does provides benefits to members in the workplace. Or they may just ignore this requirement. Or they may challenge it in court.

This policy reflects a protracted attack by the government of Jason Kenney on workers and their unions. This has included making it harder to certify a new union, binding the hands of public-sector employers with secret bargaining mandates, passing laws that allow the government to declare pickets illegal, and requiring unions to get permission to picket certain worksites.

Since it appears the UCP will be a one-and-done government, it is hard to say how much impact these dues changes will have before they are likely repealed.

-- Bob Barnetson