Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bill 19 a missed opportunity on violence prevention

Last week, Alberta introduced and passed (!) Bill 19, An Act to Protect Gas and Convenience Store Workers. This legislation requires customers to pay before pumping in an effort to prevent gas-and-dash injuries as well as increases employers’ obligations around staff safety. Unfortunately, Bill 19 was only a half-measure that leaves workers vulnerable to other, more common forms of workplace violence.

The pay-before-you-pump requirement is long overdue. BC enacted Grant’s Law in 2005 and, in doing so, eliminated gas-and-dash deaths. Interestingly, last autumn’s consultation on this legislation revealed that 77% of filling stations already had this technology in place. In this way, pay-before-you-pump is another instance of the law catching up with practice. And this practice benefits employers by reducing theft. That said, this is laudable move by Alberta’s New Democratic government.

The majority of Bill 19, however, is focused on setting out requirements around violence prevention in convenience stores and gas stations. Stats on violence-related injuries are hard to find (and, notably, aren’t a part of the background info on Bill 19). Last autumn’s consultation suggested there were 83 employee assaults resulting in lost-time claims from 2011 to 2015. And, more broadly, there were about 750 victims of crime in this sector (victims include workers and bystanders) in 2012. One implication is that in-store violence is a much numerically larger issue than gas-and-dash.

BC’s legislation requires employers to choose among three options if they employ retail workers between 11 pm and 6 am:
  1. Assign two employees to the job.
  2. Install a physical barrier between the worker and the public.
  3. Implement a violence protection program (e.g., time locked safe, good visibility, video surveillance, emergency transmitter).
Most employers have opted for option 3 because it is the cheapest and least disruptive option. Option 3 has been the norm for bigger retailers at least as far back as 1989, when I was an overnight gas jockey. Alberta’s legislation requires employers to only comply with option 3—basically legally mandating the best practices common 30 years ago.

The weakness of this approach is that it is basically a robbery-prevention program, rather than a violence-prevention program. Certainly, robbery prevention programs will have some spill over effect on violence (as some violence occurs during robberies). What stats are available on violence in convenience stores (and they are poor) from the US suggests that only 20% of homicides have a robbery connection.

We also know that robbery-prevention programs don’t necessarily prevent violence. For example, the existence of a robbery-prevention program did not prevent the deaths of two Edmonton Mac’s employees in 2015, who were killed after being robbed for what little cash was in the till. Barriers might well have prevented these deaths.

At last year’s consultation, employers resisted the requirement to install barriers because of the expected cost and operational impact (e.g., it interferes with workers perform other duties like cleaning and stocking). Indeed, the convenience-store lobby led the charge in BC to weaken Grant’s Law in 2012 and allow the substitution of a robbery-prevention program in lieu of barriers or two staff members.

Alberta’s decision to adopt the weakest of BC’s three options leaves convenience-store and gas-station workers at significant risk of workplace violence. These changes appear consistent with the Notley’s government’s “getting to average” pattern on labour legislation, wherein the limits of employment law changes appear to be the rules that are already widely adopted elsewhere (apparently, even if they don’t really work).

Since most major gas and convenience-store chains already comply with these rules, there is going to be little employer push back on the changes. Indeed, there is going to be praise. For example:
“Pre-payment eliminates the risks associated with fuel payments, and we applaud the government for taking this important step to protect attendants and the public. We believe this is the right thing to do – and so do the people working at our stations.”
Lawrence Richler, vice-president, Canadian Products Marketing, Husky Energy Inc.

“A safe store environment is paramount to 7-Eleven Canada and we believe pre-payment of fuel purchases will improve employee and public safety in Alberta. For many years, 7-Eleven Canada has run an employee safety program similar to the safety plan announced today. It stems from our commitment to our employees and the communities we serve.”
Doug Rosencrans, vice-president and general manager, 7-Eleven Canada
Yet praise from industry (which has been spared significant costs) does not necessarily mean that the government got the balance right. Under Bill 19, vulnerable workers remain vulnerable to workplace violence. Overall, this is missed opportunity to put worker safety before employer profitability. Even the usually supportive Alberta Federation of Labour issued a press release noting this gap in the NDs' bill.

I suspect the NDs know Bill 19 is a half measure (or they got really bad policy advice). And that is why they are pushing the gas-and-dash narrative (which is a clear win for workers and an easy sell) while downplaying (and, frankly, misrepresenting) the so-called violence-prevention measures.

-- Bob Barnetson


Anonymous said...

This really resonate. I see that the law is continuously going to be playing catch with the practice and that employers profitability are still regarded more than employee safety.

Government to retrace their steps while making necessary amendments to the policy (Bill i9) where applicable to allow and unsure equilibrium between employers and employees as well as create adequate security measures in terms of violence prevention as opposed to robbery prevention.

Anonymous said...

Do you happen to know if Bill 19 applies to First Nations lands? I am having a heck of a time getting advice on this!

Bob Barnetson said...

So I'm not a lawyer and don't give legal advice. My understanding of jurisdiction is that it works like this. Provincial law normally applies unless (1) the work is in an area normally under federal jurisdiction (e.g., uranium mining, telecommunications) or (2) the employer is the band. Then federal law applies. Your best bet is asking a lawyer about your specific case but that seems to be the broad contours of it.