Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Alberta Labour 2016/17 Annual Report

Alberta Labour released its 2016/17 annual report earlier this year. Here are some highlights that touch on safe, fair and healthy workplaces

Labour Relations
Both Labour Board hearings and certification applications have dropped by 20% or more over the past two years. It will be interesting to see if card-check certification results in a reversal of this trend in organizing.

Despite this decline, wait times for hearings are rising, averaging 66 days (the target is 70). Decision times are also lagging, with only 63% of decisions being rendered in 90 days or less (target is 85%). This is explained as reflecting (in part) the temporary unavailability of adjudicators.

Employment Standards
Complaint numbers held steady this year but there was a significant increase in the number of files closed (addressing a backlog). While the government recovered $4.61 million in unpaid wages, it is unclear what percentage of owed wages this comprises.

Only 49% of ES complaints were completed within 180 days of receipt. The target is 65% and ES has failed to meet the target in each of the last 5 years. This may reflect staffing levels, as there are only 45 ES inspectors and 8 other staff in Alberta, which has a non-union workforce of about 1.8 million.

Over 670 inspections were conducted this year (focusing on youth and temporary foreign workers). This is up significantly from the 108 inspections conducted in 2014/15.

Most inspections uncovered multiple violations about overtime, holiday pay and record keeping. That most inspections found violations is a good indication of widespread non-compliance with the law and suggests additional enforcement is required to deter employers from violating the law.

Occupational Health and Safety
It appears there was about a 40% jump in OHS inspections this past year to 8648 inspections (and 3618 re-inspections). About 1600 of these (re)inspections occurred around the Fort McMurray fire clean-up and rebuilding. Given this, it is unclear if this increase in inspections is permanent or just reflects an one-time bump. It is also unclear what proportion of employers these inspections affected but the usual number is about 2%. 

There were slight increases in prosecutions (13, up 2) and fines ($1.6m, up $100k) and 23 charges were laid. The court put three employers on corporate probation and also sentenced on employer to community service. There were 129 tickets issued for minor violations (54 to employers, 75 to workers). There were also 9 administrative penalties issued to employers.

Give that there were 44,543 disabling injuries reported in 2016, these numbers seem pretty low. Clearly OHS is still trying to soft-sell compliance by writing 7848 compliance orders rather than using sanctions. That employers are consistently found to be violating the Act and Code suggests that this soft approach does not appear to deter violations.

There was an inspection blitz of gas stations and convenience stores. This is likely related to concern over the safety of workers prompted by gas-and-dash deaths and violence-related fatalities. There were 378 (re)inspections between February and May 2016 with 463 orders written.

The ministry is also claiming partial credit for prior inspection blitz in the residential construction sector falls from roofs (from 20 to 9). I’m pretty skeptical of this claim. Most injuries are not reported, construction activity has been off due to the downturn (so there are fewer roofers working), and my (admittedly casual) observations of activity in west Edmonton shows no real change in the incidence of fall protection being used (almost never).

Vulnerable Workers
A joint OHS-employment standards blitz was undertaken focused on vulnerable workers employed by employers previously demonstrating chronic non-compliance (it is a bit hard to tell if this includes the ES and OHS inspections noted above—I expect so). Not surprisingly, the 287 inspections (and 201 re-inspections) yielded 472 compliance orders (mostly addressing hazard assessment, emergency preparedness, first aid and violence). This blitz continues this year. It will be interesting to see if chronic violators experience escalating sanctions.

Injury Rates and Safety Perceptions
The number and rate of lost-time claims continues to decline in Alberta. The (more expansive) disabling injury rate is also declining. That said, we should be cautious of this data. A recent study I’m currently writing up surveyed 2000 Alberta workers about their injury reporting practices and confirmed earlier studies that 69% of disabling injuries are never reported.

The government routinely surveys Albertans about their perceptions. Regarding safety, 90% of Albertans felt their workplaces were safe. It is important to note that this measure has three answers (very safe somewhat safe, and not safe). The two positive answers are combined to get the final result. This answer set certainly raises the question of biasing the results (two positive and one negative) and the government will be dropping this measure in the next business cycle.

Financing and Measurement Changes
Overall, the government spent about $61m on safe, fair and healthy workforce activities ($3m less than budgeted). It looks like about $45.3m of this came from transfers from the Workers’ Compensation Board to offset the entire cost of Occupational Health and Safety programming. There was a $2.4 million increase in the Safe, Fair and Healthy Workplaces budget, most of which was aimed at occupational health and safety (p.12).

An interesting and encouraging pattern in the report is mentioning that the performance measures will change next year. For example, instead of measuring the number of collective agreements that settle without a work stoppage, the government will measures days lost per 1000 employees (p.19). This provides a finer measure and also attributes work stoppage effects to the year in which they occurred, rather than the year in which the agreement settled.

Overall, the quality of the information in the Alberta Labour annual report continues to improve. The performance it records continues to be mixed, with staffing issues (which is basically a matter of funding) negatively affecting the ability of the government to ensure that employers comply with their statutory obligations.

-- Bob Barnetson

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