Tuesday, June 30, 2020

AU plays the victim card… again

Athabasca University (AU) is in the midst of a multi-year campaign to bust its faculty association. Its latest effort is using its power to designate who is considered an academic to propose carving out 67% of the members of the faculty association as the union heads into another difficulty round of bargaining.

AU’s de-designation efforts are going poorly. There is no plausible explanation for AU’s proposal to change bargaining unit boundaries after 35 years other than AU is seeking to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table. And AU is transparently gaslighting its staff by refusing to admit the main and obvious implications of its proposals (i.e., 67% of members will be kicked out of the union).

Not surprisingly, staff members are upset. While the results of AU’s most recent engagement survey have not yet been released, I suspect they will be much worse than last year’s, when only 43% of staff said they trusted senior administrators.

Over the past three weeks, faculty association members have been emailing Dr. Margaret Kierylo (AVP Integrated Policy and Planning) to express their concerns about de-designation. Kierylo is the main author of the policy proposal and appears to be the executive lead on the issue. While every email is a bit different, here is a typical example:

From: "Dr. Bob Barnetson" <barnetso@athabascau.ca>
Date: Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 10:22 AM
To: "Dr. Margaret Kierylo" <mkierylo@athabascau.ca>
Subject: some thoughts on your de-designation proposal


I hope this note finds you well.

I’m writing to you about AU’s present proposal to de-designate professionals, academic coordinators, and deans and associate deans. I previously wrote to [Provost] Matt [Prineas] about this in February, but he’s never bothered to respond.

What you are presently proposing will carve 67% of the members of my union out of the union. This is an unacceptable outcome and one effect will be to bust the union’s bargaining power. This is not how academics treat their colleagues.

I’m hopeful you might consider revising the proposed policy so as to maintain the status quo. The distress and anger this proposal is generating quite significant.

I imagine it is a bit hard to see how mad people are about this issue given that we’re all stuck at home for the next while. But, when we return to work, you’ll likely notice how straight up angry people are at the exec and at you (since you seem to be the face of this policy proposal).

A change in the university’s approach would likely go a long way to attenuating this anger and bringing this issue to a productive conclusion.

If you’d like to discuss this further, I’m available at either number below.

Thanks kindly

Kierylo’s response was a boilerplate email of no real consequence. What was interesting was AU’s next move.

At the June 22 consultation between AU and its unions, AU’s labour relations consultant Abey Arnaout began the meeting by claiming that Kierylo was being harassed. Here is a near-verbatim transcript:
Abey: … Before we start, I’d like to read out a statement from the university.

Over the past week members of the university’s draft designation policy committee have received emails from their union executive. The concern we raise today is not receipt of the emails. The issue in hand is harassment, bullying, and intimidation through veiled threat by these emails.

Quotes implied to be threatening:

I imagine it is a bit hard to see how mad people are about this issue. When we return to work you will notice how angry people are university exec and at you.

One can objectively assume that this was a threat of the university community of physical harm.

We want to make it clear that intimidation, threats, harassment and bullying have no place at this university or at any workplace. We understand that the topic of designation is an important one and that members of AU’s community are passionate about it. 
Because many of these emails indicate they were directed by the union, we assume that the union is complicit in this behavior. Our union partners should not deem this behavior as an acceptable labour relations tactic. 
This may lead to disciplinary action. The university takes no issue with the receipt of emails from university members. We remind our members to engage in respectful dialogue.
So, basically, the university is alleging that my email constituted a threat directed at Kierylo. Now, if that were true, the university has an obligation to take action to protect Kierylo. This might include:
  • Indicating its concern to me directly.
  • Directing me not to threaten (or even contact) Kierylo again.
  • Commencing a disciplinary investigation (perhaps suspending me with pay during that time) and imposing sanctions.
  • Re-assigning Kierylo so she is no longer in a position to be threatened.
  • Contacting the police.
AU has done none of these things. I only heard about this concern second hand when the union was trying to track down the full email to review it (AU refused to provide a copy of the email to the union). AU’s inaction suggests AU doesn’t really think Kierylo was subjected to a threat. Because, of course, she wasn’t.

What is actually going on here is that AU is losing its fight to bust the union. AU’s behaviour is threatening the interests of every member of the union and has destroyed the credibility of AU’s executive team. The result, naturally, is that the members are becoming angry and rallying around the union.

And AU doesn't know what to do about that. If AU continues with efforts to de-designate two-thirds of the union’s members, it risks additional reputational harm and a nasty legal fight as well as the possibility of job action. If AU drops its proposal, the union will claim victory and the workers will learn (once again) that resisting AU attacks pays off.

Instead of trying to resolve this self-inflicted strategic dilemma, AU has decided continue to press ahead with de-designation while trying to delegitimize the behaviours that faculty association members are using to resist AU’s union busting. A powerful person or organization false claiming to be the victim of harassment is a form of emotional manipulation.

This tactic is, however, not going to work. AU already played the victim card just last summer after it got beat up during the last round of bargaining. And, last week, it claimed that any criticism of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) efforts was bullying. The effectiveness of claiming to be the victim declines quickly with repetition.

Further, AU’s overall credibility with staff is so low that staff disbelieve much of what AU says. This is especially the case when the facts underlying the claim don't support it. No reasonable person would find the email threatening. This is likely why AU hasn't taken any meaningful steps to “protect” Kierylo—they would face another embarrassing and expensive loss in a discipline hearing.

One result of falsely claiming to be the victim is that AU is signalling that direct pressure on senior executives causes them discomfort (i.e., is an effective tactic). If a series of very mild emails generated this kind of intemperate response, what kind of response might the union get if it amped up the pressure even slightly (e.g., flyering Kierylo’s neighbourhood)?

At this point, AU’s best out is to revise its proposed policy such that the policy that does not affect the boundaries of the bargaining unit. (AU will lose face doing that, but that’s a sunk cost at this point.) Walking away from de-designation will reduce the support the union has because its members will no longer be under immediate threat.

If AU’s executives can’t see that (or let their egos get in the way of doing that), it be up to the Board of Governors to prevent this issue from causing the institution to spin out of control. Because that is pretty clearly where things are headed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Research: COVID anxiety and cannabis use at work

The Institute for Work and Health (IWH) does some really excellent research. They also do an excellent job of making that research accessible to the public. The IWH’s Spring 2020 issue of At Work is just out and contains a bunch of interesting pieces.
  • Anxiety among heath care workers: Nearly 60% of health care workers surveyed in April reported levels of anxiety surpassing an accepted threshold level of clinical report. A key factor contributing to this anxiety is the unavailability of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace. Nearly half of respondents indicated that fewer than half of their PPE needs were being met.
  • Cannabis use at work stable: The legalization of cannabis in 2018 has not resulted in higher reporting of use in the workplace. Usage rates in the two hours before work, at work, during work breaks, or at the workplace at the end of a work shift, remained at 8%. Interestingly, 16% of respondents who used cannabis indicated they used it to manage a work-related injury or illness. Employer who were reported as having policies on substance use increased from 63% to 79%
The IWH also provides issue briefings. The most recent examines what Ontario employers spend on health and safety. On average, expenditures were $1303 per worker per year. There was wide variation between sectors, with good sectors spending much more than service sectors. Spending was heavily weighted to organizational management and supervision functions (58%) and staff training (22%)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

COVID and PSE: Do as I say, not as I do

Watching bricks-and-mortar post-secondary institutions cope the suspension of the winter 2020 semester has been very humbling. Many of my colleagues worked very hard (often with little institutional support) to ensure their students could finish out the semester during lockdown.

Going forward, many institutions are (sensibly) planning for an online autumn 2020 semester. This means that online education (previously the purview of a small number of PSEs) will now become the norm. For some long-time distance educators, its validating to see traditional institutions recognize that they can provide a solid online education.

I was struck, though, by some comments attributed to the president of Athabasca University at the end of May in the Globe and Mail:
The virtual programs put together on an emergency basis by schools in the spring is not really online learning, said Neil Fassina, president of Athabasca University, the first postsecondary institution in Canada to focus solely on distance education. High-quality online education includes opportunities for student-to-student and student-to-professor interaction, along with significant tools for social engagement. It typically takes months to build a proper online course, he added.
It is a bit arrogant to judge other institutions as not providing “high-quality online learning” when Athabasca University (which provides almost exclusively online education) doesn’t really provide “opportunities for student-to-student and student-to-professor interaction, along with significant tools for social engagement.” In truth, most of AU’s undergrad programming (I’d guess >90%) is basically delivered on a “correspondence with computers” model, with very limited contact between teachers and students and no peer-to-peer contact whatsoever.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. Many students learn quite well in this model and makes a university education accessible to many students who couldn’t otherwise go. It’s just kind of weird for the president to assert (by implication), that his university isn’t really offering high-quality online education.

Indeed, if you watch the video (start at about 8.50), he asserts that AU can “create environments where there is huge interaction between professor and learner if it is designed specifically for the online space. We can create great interaction among and between learners” (from about 10.00).

This statement is narrowly true: AU could do that. But, we mostly don’t. What is happening here is a blurring between prescription and description. Outsiders can't see this difference and this sets learners up for a pretty big surprise when they arrive and basically get a website and an etext.

Later on (about 12.30), Fassina extolls the importance of supporting the academy in making the transition to online delivery. That’s a nice talking point. But it belies what is actually happening inside AU. The issue of moving to digital exams has basically been dumped in the laps of professors without adequate (or any support).

Quick background: Many AU courses have invigilated final exams. Exams can be written at an AU exam centre or some other exam centre. Some courses’ exams can also be delivered through online invigilation services, such as ProctorU. Other courses retain paper-based exams that must be written in-person. COVID has foreclosed in-person exams and the institution has moved to online only exams.

For many disciplines, online exams don’t work. I’ve heard from other profs that language, math, and science courses could not be quickly transitioned (or transitioned at all) onto online platforms because these platforms don't support the punctuation, graphics, calculations, or symbols required for assessing student comprehension.

This has been a long-term issue and is why these exams were still paper-based exams. Instead of addressing this (and other pressing operational issues, the institution has spent three years navel-gazing, writing strategic plans, and patting itself on the back.)

Along comes COVID and profs with paper-only exams were basically told “figure it out”. The Faculty of Science appears to be have been particularly hard hit, because of the number of affected courses and the size of the enrollments in the courses. Professors were left to fashion substitute exams (often unique to each student) and schedule and administer them with no additional support. This VASTLY increases the work associated with examinations. Consequently, other tasks (marking, research, sleep) have been pushed aside.

(There are COVID-related workload issues in other areas of the university, but exams is the easiest story to tell.)

The point of this story is that, for all of Fassina’s nice words, AU is basically doing the same things as every other PSE in COVID and dumping the hard work associated with managing COVID onto the staff and it’s not going well. Given that, it is pretty galling for AU’s executive to position themselves as leaders in online education and purport to dispense advice.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Race, immigration status and COVID risk

There have been some really good posts about the disproportionate impact of COVID 19 on racialized and migrant workers recently.

In a post entitled Canada’s COVID-19 blind spots on race, immigration and labour, Aimee-Angelique Bouka and Yolanda Bouka flag the disproportionate number of women, recent immigrants, migrant workers and racialize Canadians who work in industries considered essential during the pandemic. These workers are at greater risk of contracting COVID in the workplace, in part, because of the exploitative employment practices common in these industries, including long-term care and meat packing.

One of their pointed questions is why do Canadians (and particularly Canadian policy makers) turn a blind eye to the employment practices that make these workers more vulnerable? They question whether part of the explanation may centre on who is at risk.

In a post entitled Coronoavirus: Canada stigmatizes, jeopardizes essential migrant workers, Jenna Hennebry, Susana Caxaj, Janet McLaughlin, and Stephanie Mayell examine the factors that have contributed to serious outbreaks among migrant farm workers in Ontario. They also explore how the workers are being stigmatized as a result, even though it is structural issues (under the control of employers (e.g., over crowded and unsanitary working and living conditions) that seem to be driving these outbreaks.

The factors contributing to these outbreaks are long-term issues with Canada’s migrant worker programs. In my view, governments’ responses have not been particularly effective. I expect the likely issue here is that there is simply no political will to impose additional costs on farmers in order to make better the lives of racialized non-citizens with effectively no labour mobility.

At present, the rate of post-arrival infection among these workers is very worrisome and the agricultural season has only just begun. Whether the federal and provincial governments will take effective action is an open question. A list of recommended actions is available here.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

COVID and mobile work

A few years ago, I was a bit player in a pan-Canadian study of mobile work. One of the researchers in the study was Sara Dorow (University of Alberta). Dorow’s research included looking at the experiences of camp workers, including fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers in Fort McMurray.

Dorow has revisited some that work in light of COVID-19 and the outbreak that started at the Kearl Lake worker camp. More than 100 cases have been traced back to this camp. About a quarter of the cases are in other provinces.

Her recent blog post makes a number of interesting points, including:
  • COVID is just one of the hazards associated with FIFO work.
  • The structure of camp life plays a significant role in how serious these hazards are.
  • The close contact of camp life is a factor in outbreaks in others industries, such as meat packing and long-term care.
More broadly, Dorow notes that some workers' mobility results in immobility for other workers, These include those who must remain at home to manage in the mobile workers’ absences and the camp staff, who are often temporary foreign workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hazard assessments and COVID-19

One of the challenges employers face is operating safely during COVID-19. In Alberta, employers have an obligation to identify and control hazards. Usually, hazard assessments are private processes, known only to the employer, some employees and (if there is one) the joint health and safety committee.

Recently, an Alberta employer (Prairie Dog Brewing) made an interesting post where they talked through some of the COVID-19 hazards they have identified as the think about re-opening, possible controls, and their eventual decision. This post is interesting for a couple of reasons:
  1. The owners walk through both obvious (serving customers) and less obvious (dishwashing) hazards in some details.
  2. The post then explores possible controls for the hazards and how effective they will be. This analysis is very thoughtful.
  3. In the end, the owners decide to adopt an elimination control by not opening for sit-down service, rather than opening using PPE (which is likely not very effective but probably would meet the legal minimum).
  4. The owners discuss explicitly the costs associated with their control options and how this influences their decision making. While primarily financial, these costs alsl include staff resistance and customer violence.
  5. The owners examine how businesses face an incentive not to report positive COVID cases and suggests public policy measure that might solve this problem.
For OHS students, this post represents a candid peak behind the curtain at a hazard assessment as applied in the real world.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Sex work, income support and COVID-19

LBST 415 (Sex work and sex workers) spends a lot of time examining the ways in which different jurisdictions regulate sex work and sex workers. There are a number of different models.

Canada has adopted the Nordic model, wherein the sale of sex is not (usually) illegal but the purchase of sexual services is. In theory, this model is designed to extinguish demand for sexual services while making it possible for sex workers to access police help if necessary. In practice, neither of these outcomes occurs.

New Zealand, by contrast, has decriminalized sexual services. Sex workers are able to access all of the normal protections that workers access. The research suggests that this seems to offer the best outcomes for sex workers.

COVID-19 offers an interesting lens through which to view and assess these models. In Canada, sex workers are reporting that their income had dropped significantly as a result of the pandemic. Further, sex workers indicate they either don’t qualify for or are too afraid to apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

For example, people who engage in sex work on the side to top up their (inadequate) disability payments (in order to feed their kids) are concerned that applying on the CERB could later come back to affect their disability payments (because applying indicates income over $5000). Applying on the CERB also requires sharing banking information, which could be used to track back to their clients.

These concerns reflect the stigma and persecution that sex workers continue to experience in Canada, despite the decriminalization of selling sexual services. As a result of declining income, sex workers may consider accepting riskier clients (thus heightening sex workers’ risk of injury or death). Economically forcing sex workers to continue to work during a pandemic also puts them at risk for infection.

By contrast, sex workers in New Zealand had full and immediate access to New Zealand’s emergency wage subsidy. New Zealand sex workers are also immediately eligible for job-seeker benefits (basically EI in Canada) if the decide they wish to leave sex work and seek other employment. Canadian sex workers would not qualify for EI and, if they did, would be forced to endure a waiting period. This is not to suggest the conditions of sex work are perfect in New Zealand, but simply the New Zealand model seems to offer better working conditions for sex workers.

While debate over the best regulatory model for sex work often focuses on working conditions and financial outcomes for sex workers and concerns about community effects, COVID-19 highlights that sex work (like all work) is entangled in a complex web of issues of policy issues. The ability of New Zealand sex workers to stop-out of sex work during the pandemic highlights how labour market policy and income support (which largely ignore sex worker in Canada) affect sex workers’ ability to control the conditions under which they work and how this has knock-on effects for people who have little or no direct contact with sex workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Cargill as a teaching case

A friend and I were chatting the other day about the ongoing occupational health and safety (OHS) problems at the Cargill meat-processing plant in High River. More than half of the 2000 workers at the plant have contracted COVID-19 and, subsequently, spread it to family members. One worker and one family member have died.

Cargill would make an interesting teaching case for an OHS class because it exemplifies so many of the tensions and trends that OHS practitioners have to grapple with. In no particular order and off the top of my head:

1. Hazard control: Workplace design is an important factor in this outbreak (close proximity) and the employer had chosen controls (basically PPE) that are at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls (cheapo and less effective) to avoid having to redesign the work.

2. Internal responsibility system: Workers flagged COVID concerns to the employer early in the pandemic and the employer under-responded, resulting in worker injury. This is evidence of the limited effectiveness of the IRS.

3. State inspection: Alberta’s inspection (via FaceTime) of the plant in response to complaints was inadequate and green-lit the employer for continued operations when the plant wasn’t safe. This is evidence that Alberta’s inspection regime is basically ineffective (this pattern is evident elsewhere in Canada).

4. Refusals: While Cargill workers are not yet refusing unsafe work, refusals in COVID are being denied in several jurisdictions. This demonstrate the practical weakness of workers’ safety rights, which are individual. The right to collective action (including mid-term strikes) might be much more effective at protecting workers.

5. Penalties: We’ll have to see how the government’s investigation plays out, but I would bet Cargill gets off with effectively no sanctions. Creating a law that fails to punish likely contributes to employer’s disregarding the law.

6. Injury recognition and disease: Some forms of injury have greater recognition than other. Employer responses to COVID have been inadequate, in part because injury causation is a bit murky (did you get it at work or in the community?). WCB compensation is also going to be interesting to watch.

7. Precarious work: Broadly speaking, employment precarity appears to increase workers’ exposure to COVID. Cargill’s workers, although unionized and eligible for CERB during the shut down, face profound economic pressure to return to work.

8. Precarious citizenship: The Cargill workers who are temporary foreign workers have effectively no choice but to go back to work for Cargill because of their restricted labour mobility. This is a good example of intersectionality where precarious employment and precarious citizenship compound workers’ vulnerability to employer misbehaviour.

9. Racialized workers: Most Cargill workers are either new resident or temporary foreign workers. Some of the discourse around this outbreak has been racist, with efforts to blame cultural practices (which are really just rational responses to economic exploitation) for the spread of the disease.

10. Public health: There isn’t a bright line between occupational and public health hazards. COVID caught at work has spread into the community and into other workplaces. But the linkages between OHS and public health have been limited. And public health’s engagement with employers has seemed na├»ve.

11. Profit: The underlying driver of Cargill’s behaviour has been maintaining production (and thus profit-making). Some of the costs of this are being externalized onto workers in the form of ill health.

This case would make a fascinating teaching case to carry through an entire OHS course. It also suggests that things at Cargill are so bad that it reveals Alberta’s OHS system as a sham.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Injury data shows no improvement in Alberta

April 28 was the Day of Mourning for Injured and Killed workers. As usual, academics from the University of Regina released a report on workplace fatality and injury rates. Due to delays in reporting, the data in the 2020 report is based upon accepted workers’ compensation claims from 2018.

There are a number of methodological caveats that go with these numbers. The key one is that the data represents accepted WCB claims, rather than the true number of work-related fatalities and deaths. Fatalities are likely 10-13 times higher than the WCB numbers. An all encompassing injury count could be similarly out by an order of magnitude, although serious injuries (which is the focus of this WCB injury data in this report) are probably 2 to 3 times higher than reported (although this will vary by jurisdiction).

Among the larger provinces (>100k workers), Saskatchewan and Alberta again led the pack in terms of the injury-related fatality rate (deaths per 100,000) in 2018, with 5.1 and 3.8 respectively. Most jurisdictions saw increases in their rate over the previous three-year average, with Manitoba (241%), Nova Scotia (137% and Saskatchewan (65% should the greatest percentage increases.

Newfoundland and Labrador (8.7), Nova Scotia (5.1) and Alberta (3.9) had the highest rates of occupational disease related deaths in 2018. Again, rates went up everywhere.

Lost-time claim rates (LTCs being a proxy for serious injuries) were also broadly up in 2018, with Manitoba, BC and Saskatchewan with the highest rates. The greatest increases were seen in Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta.

Table 2 looks at the absolute number of fatalities by jurisdiction, You’ll see that Alberta has the highest number of injury-related fatalities and the third-highest number of disease-related fatalities, despite being the fourth most populous province.

These numbers sit uneasily with Alberta’s five-year average lost-time claim rate (Table 11), which is among the lowest in Canada.

The most probable explanation for this is that there is a high level of under-reporting of serious injuries in Alberta (several studies have found that about two-thirds of serious injuries are not reported in Alberta).

What this suggests is that Alberta’s injury data is likely not valid (i.e., it is misleading) and workplaces are much less safe than this data (which is used in government annual reports) would suggest.

Even if we accept Alberta’s data is valid, Figures 2 and 11 indicate there has been little improvement in Alberta’s fatality and injury rates over the past decade.

This, in turn, suggests that neither employers nor the government have made workplaces significantly safer. Put another way, the maiming and killing of workers remains acceptable to politicians and employers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Cargill, COVID, and the failure of Alberta OHS policy

This post first appeared on the Parkland Institute blog.

Two meat-packing plants in southern Alberta have given rise to nearly one in six of Alberta’s 3400 cases of COVID-19. These two outbreaks demonstrate how Alberta’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system is failing workers due to inherent shortcomings as well as the short-sighted politics of the provincial government. In this analysis we examine what went wrong at the two meatpacking plants, what it tells us about the inadequacy of OHS policy in Alberta and how the incidents could have been avoided.

Update: As of April 27, the Cargill plant has been associated with nearly 1100 cases. this is approximately 1 in 4 cases in Alberta.

Meatpacking in Alberta

Earlier this week, the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River closed after one worker died and 480 are ill from COVID-19. Approximately 140 related cases caused by community transmission are also being investigated, including three spouses of Cargill employees who work in a local retirement home. Over in Brooks, the JBS plant is down to a single shift after over 120 workers contracted the disease and hundreds of others have refused to come to work due to fear of getting the disease. So far, one JBS worker has died from COVID.

Working conditions in a meatpacking plant are grueling and dangerous. The work is fast and physically demanding and the worksite is crowded and hazardous. Workers typically stand elbow-to-elbow, wielding knives and blades while the assembly line of carcasses never ceases. Employers organize work this way to maximize profitability. One side effect of this job design is that viruses and bacteria are easily spread from worker to worker.

Employers have also ground down wages and working conditions over the past 25 years. The majority of workers in meatpacking plants today are recent immigrants and temporary migrant workers. Many of the plant workers live in smaller rural communities where there are fewer community supports and the newcomers are often isolated. Some workers commute from larger urban centres. Although represented by a union, the 2,000 workers at Cargill broadly fit this pattern.

Occupational Health and Safety in Alberta

Alberta relies primarily on the internal responsibility system (IRS) for ensuring workplaces are safe for workers. The IRS makes employers and workers jointly responsible for ensuring safety. The IRS is premised on the assumption that both employers and workers desire safe workplaces. There is a long history of Canadian employers ignoring and hiding hazards in order to keep making money, which suggests the assumption of a shared interest in safety is false.

In theory, government inspections are supposed to keep employers honest, but inspections are rare and employers face little chance of being sanctioned even if they get caught breaking the rules. Not surprisingly, employers don’t tend to take OHS very seriously and only control hazards where the control is cheaper than the injury. Workers know this and often find themselves fearful of exercising their safety rights.

Academic research suggests Alberta’s OHS system does not work very well. A 2016 survey of 2,000 Alberta workers found that one in five workers (408,000 people) were injured on the job the previous year, including 170,700 who were seriously injured. Only about 30% of these serious injuries are reported. This data is broadly consistent with other studies of Alberta injury completed in 2002 and 2018. These long-standing shortcomings in Alberta’s OHS system set the stage for significant levels of illness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workplace Safety Failures

Alberta’s approach to managing COVID-19 in workplaces has failed the workers in meat-packing plants in three ways. First, Alberta’s OHS enforcement regime didn't work. The government inspectors conducted a safety inspection via Facetime, with company officials videoing areas of the plant. Importantly, the kill floor (an important site of close worker contact) was not in operation during the inspection. Based on this inspection, the government officials deemed the infection control measures taken by the employer to be sufficient. The union—which had been expressing concerns since the first COVID-19 cases appeared at the facility weeks prior—was not informed of the inspection.

While a virtual inspection is wholly inadequate, a physical inspection may not have changed the outcome. Remember that the IRS assumes all parties have similar interests in safety. This assumption means inspectors often defer to employers in deciding which protections are reasonably practicable to implement. In this case, Cargill implemented masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) after demands by the union but refused to slow or temporarily cease production, reduce the number of workers in a physical space, or alter the workflow to protect workers from infection—all changes sought by the workers and their union. Employers prefer PPE because it is cheaper and does not interfere with production or profit. OHS is weakly positioned to challenge employer decisions about safety, and so enforcement officers are likely to agree that PPE is sufficient. Often, as in this case, it is not.

The second failing is operational and involves gaps that appear to exist between OHS and the public health officials from Alberta Health Services (AHS). Each agency has a unique role to play in protecting Albertans. In a pandemic, these roles overlap and no structures have been put into place for handling that fact. As a result, gaps emerge.

For example, OHS is concerned solely with what happens at work. Consequently, OHS ignores non-work factors that create or magnify hazards at work. For example, many Cargill workers (especially the migrant workers) have inadequate (i.e. crowded) housing, in part, due to the low wages paid by the employer. This increases the risk of COVID transmission at home which, in turn, magnifies the risk of an outbreak at the worksite. Similarly, the plant is located 7km outside town. Workers are forced to carpool because there is no public transit. Again, this factor magnifies the risk of transmission. Addressing these issues is necessary to protect workers’ health but falls outside the domain of OHS.

Public health officials, on the other hand, do deal with non-work factors. But they have little power to direct change (e.g. establishment of public transit, provision of adequate housing). Further, public health officials are not necessarily well versed in job design and employment dynamics. A lack of experience with specific industries can mean public health officials may not be able to counter employers’ claims that employers are doing everything they can. Culturally, many non-labour experts have difficulty grasping that employers explicitly and intentionally trade workers’ health for profit. Further, while commenting on housing and transportation patterns is legitimate discourse in the context of trying to reduce the spread of a disease, this discourse essentially gives the employer a ready-made argument to dispute workers’ compensation claims (i.e. the injury did not arise from or occur during work), allowing them to evade responsibility.

The third, and likely most important, failing is the political direction under which both sets of officials work. The Kenney government has sent very clear signals from the beginning that its priority is the uninterrupted flow of meat products in the market. At the end of March, Kenney chastised federal meat inspectors for not entering a smaller meat processing plant north of Calgary due to COVID concerns and threatened to send in provincial authorities to do the inspectors’ jobs. At the time, he spoke about the importance of maintaining the meat supply. Throughout the emerging situation at Cargill and JBS, Kenney and his cabinet ministers have repeatedly downplayed safety concerns.

The political decision to prioritize production over safety sends a clear signal to the employer that they can get away with half measures. And it sends a message, either directly or indirectly, to enforcement officers at OHS and AHS to not take actions that will unduly antagonize Cargill or JBS. And, now that the situation has exploded into a crisis, Premier Jason Kenney continues to downplay its significance. For example, on April 22, Kenney highlighting that only two of 200 meat processing plants in the province are affected, calling this a success. This claim is disingenuous, given that these two plants, which have over 4,500 workers combined and produce 70% of Canada’s beef supply, dwarf all the other plants in the province. The system’s existing structural weaknesses were amplified by a brazen and irresponsible political strategy to protect the meatpacking employers.

Worse yet, much of the government messaging implies it is the workers’ fault for carpooling and living in crowded conditions. They forget these are vulnerable newcomers to Canada who are paid very little to do difficult work and who do not choose their working and living conditions. They willfully ignore reports of workers who tested positive for COVID being told to come to work by the employer during their quarantine period as long as they were not showing symptoms.


The COVID outbreaks in these plants, like all workplace injuries, were mostly preventable. Instead of looking out for workers’ health and safety, Alberta’s government decided to prioritize production over safety. OHS officials were unwilling to step in and correct the power imbalance between employers and workers when they had the chance. The lack of action left the workers only one recourse: walk out from work, which is what hundreds of JBS workers did.

OHS has opened investigations into the safety protocols at each plant. While many labour advocates are calling for fatality investigations or even criminal prosecutions, it is unlikely that Cargill managers will face meaningful sanctions. After all, OHS green-lit Cargill’s safety efforts, declaring them adequate. Given this prior involvement, it is difficult to feel confident in the OHS investigation.

It is useful to remember that Canada’s contemporary OHS laws were the product of workers taking action into their own hands when governments wouldn’t protect them. This situation at JBS and Cargill once again demonstrates what happens when an OHS system fails so dramatically to protect worker safety: many workers are injured, some die, and the rest rise up.

-- Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Some thoughts on work and COVID

So we’re a month in to COVID-19 here in Alberta. I have some preliminary thoughts on work during an extended period of crisis. Some are general, others are more specific to Athabasca University.

Planning matters

As far as I can tell, most of the public sector had no effective plan for a pandemic. This is weird because pandemic planning was all the rage in 2004/05 (post SARS). The most public example of this has been the federal government’s bumbling rollout of enhanced income support. To the fed’s credit, they have at least tried and appear to be succeeding (likely because of their hard-working staff).

By contrast, Alberta’s response was completely inadequate, probably by design (to drive costs to the feds). A question for labour market policy wonks going forward is whether some form of basic income might be much more functional (and fairer and more efficient) than the collection of income support programs currently on offer.

Workers matter

My own institution had zero plan and its response (despite bumps) has largely been successful due to hard work, mostly by the lowest paid employees. The importance of poorly compensated workers in managing the crisis is evident everywhere (e.g., hospital cleaners, grocery store clerks, delivery people). Whether these workers can convert this momentary glimpse into their importance into meaningful improvements in their working conditions and job security going forward is an open question.

Certainly they have stored up some social capital that they may be able to use to demand things like a living wage and job security. Employers get this potential source of power and some have tried to undercut it with hazard pay. Galen Weston Jr. giving grocery workers an extra $16 a day to risk their lives won’t turn him into a folk hero. But this hazard pay will be used as a "good corporate citizen" fig leaf the next time exploitative working conditions or price fixing hits the media.

Workers don’t actually matter to employers

My employer has focused on ensuring staff can be productive at home and quickly rolled out laptops and spiffy new software. But it has done little to find out about and resolve broader issues associated with home work. People don’t have adequate workspaces so are becoming injured. Workloads have risen. A paltry payment of $50/month (before tax!) to cover extra costs was rolled out a month in, even though that is less than what regular home workers get.

Last week, the president announced that anyone who can’t work full-time from home (presumably due to conflicting demands, such as childcare) will soon have to choose between their job and their other commitments. So basically, “Ladies, thanks for helping us out during the crisis; tough luck about having kids.” (But, remember, we’re OneAU folks!). I didn’t think morale could sink lower or people could be angrier at the boss, but there you go.

Managers add little value

What I’ve seen among my colleagues is basically people are working hard and using their initiative to solve problems, even while working at home and able to play hooky. For the most part, they are doing fine and right by the people they serve.

Managers have added little value to this effort. Indeed, most of the managing that is happening is actually counter-productive, performative management with unnecessary surveillance and meetings, mostly to give managers something to do (since most seem unable or unwilling to make decisions).

Conservatives suck

Yeah, I know, profs are supposed to be even-handed and this just feeds into the narrative that we’re all lefties. But looking at the evidence (specifically at Jason Kenney and Alberta’s UCP), its clear that conservatives are just out to benefit the wealthy (specifically oil and gas companies via tax cuts for, loan guarantees to, and direct investing in a dying industry) while destroying the public services people rely on.

The government’s attack on the doctors continues DURING A FUCKING PANDEMIC and doctors are publicly making plans to reduce services and leave the province. Educational assistants have been laid off, just when they are most necessary to help students adjust to home schooling. Other public servants have been given a reprieve during the pandemic but layoffs and wage rollbacks will continue thereafter. 

My own institution has been told to reduce expenditures by 20% in this budget year (which could mean 300 layoffs from a full-time staff of 750, basically causing the university to collapse) at the same time as enrollments are surging (because we’re uniquely able to educate during a pandemic). 

I imagine this all makes ideological sense to conservatives, but the practical impact of their shitty public policy (backed by constant lying, corruption, and childish behaviour) clearly tells the rest of us that they and their war-time posturing need to go. Probably forever.

Labour is becoming bolder

The inadequacies of neoliberal policies (and the modest skills and bad instincts of conservative politicians) are emboldening workers and union leaders. I expect a wave of strikes (probably wildcats) will hit Alberta as COVID-19 recedes and conservatives push forward with more cuts. Greater class consciousness is a huge gain from COVID-19. An interesting question will be whether this class consciousness will extend to white-collar workers.

So, with that off my chest (and I feel WAY better for it), I’ll go back to trying to sort out myriad student woes while trying not to lose my sanity.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Alberta's labour law response to COVID-19

This post was previously published on the Canadian Law of Work Forum.

Alberta has enacted several temporary changes to its Employment Standards in response to COVID-19, including expanding unpaid leaves and making it easier for employers to alter working conditions and lay off workers. Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board has also established some preliminary guidance regarding the compensability of injuries and illnesses caused by COVID-19. Alberta has also delayed and partly waived workers’ compensation premiums for employers.

Employment Standards

On March 5, the COVID-19 Leave Regulation came into effect, which provided 14 days of unpaid leave if a worker was under quarantine for COVID-19. There was no requirement for a medical note or for 90 days of service to access this leave, conditions which are standard requirements to access Alberta’s 2017 provisions for unpaid job-protected leave under s.53.97 of the Employment Standards Code.

The COVID-19 Regulation also waived the one-week notice of return requirement. Workers remained entitled to the 16 weeks of unpaid leave for illness, injury or quarantine, under s.53.97 of the Code with the usual service and medical note restrictions.

On April 5, 2020, additional and temporary changes to Employment Standards were enacted. These changes were authorized by a Ministerial Orders and included an unpaid, job-protected leave for employees who must care for children, either due to school or daycare closures or illness or self-isolation of family members. No service or medical note is required.

The government also waived employers’ obligations to:
  • Provide 24 hours of written notice of shift changes.
  • Provide two weeks of notice to changes of work schedules for those under overtime averaging agreements.
  • Provide workers and unions with 8 to 16 weeks of notice of terminations of 50 or more employees (individual notice or pay in lieu entitlements remain unchanged).
Employers may now also:
  • Temporarily lay off employees for up to 120 days (instead of up to 60 days), retroactive to March 17 if the lay off was related to COVID-19.
  • More easily seek variances of and exceptions to other employment standards (related to COVID-19) from the government.
In effect, these changes allow employers to more easily and quickly alter working conditions and layoff employees.

Workers’ Compensation
Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) issued some preliminary advice about the compensability of injuries caused by COVID-19. The crux seems to be that the WCB has determined that most instances of COVID-19 are not work-related.

The WCB’s Policy 03-01, Application 3 (Occupational; Diseases) addresses the question of work-relatedness of infectious diseases by applying a three-part test, Infectious diseases are eligible for compensation if:

(a) The nature of employment involves sufficient exposure to the source of inflection, and

(b) The nature of employment is shown to be the cause of the condition, or

(c) The nature of employment creates an increased risk of exposure for the worker.

Although there are several ways to interpret this test, the most likely interpretation appears to that a claim must meet (a) and then either of (b) or (c). In its March 26 guidance to employers, the WCB asserted that each claim is judged upon its merits but then opined:
A claim is likely to be accepted if a worker contracts the illness and is performing what the province deems to be an “essential service” that puts them in regular contact with the general public. A worker will also likely be covered in the event of a widespread outbreak at their place of work.
Alberta’s list of essential services is extensive. This likely extends the scope of accepted claims beyond the WCB’s March 9 position that accepted claims would likely be mostly restricted to health-care workers. The potentially large number of COVID-19 claims, particularly high-cost claims associated with fatalities, may place some pressure on Alberta’s Accident Fund going forward.

Alberta has also deferred 2020 WCB premiums until 2021. And private-sector employers with $10 million or less in insurable earnings will have 50% of the 2020 WCB premiums waived. This waiver is estimated to cost $350 million and will be paid by the government (not taken from the surplus of the WCB’s Accident Fund).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

PSE Bargaining in Alberta: Some initial thoughts

The vast majority of collective agreements in Alberta’s post-secondary system will be up for renewal by July 1. The bargaining context is not great and includes:
  • two cuts to government grants in six months, which have triggering massive layoffs in at some institutions,
  • a recently announced expenditure reduction mandate (possibly in the range of 20%), which will likely result in further layoffs (although it may be on hold until May),
  • a tanking economy, 
  • a government intent on rolling back public-sector wages, and
  • legislation (Bill 21) last fall that allows the government to impose binding and secret bargaining mandates on PSE Boards of Governors.
While employer bargaining mandates are secret, the early pattern that is emerging is for one-year deals with a wage rollback.

Although every bargaining relationship is a bit different, PSE employers basically have two levers to get what they want in bargaining:
  1. Layoffs threat: An employer could use the spectre of layoffs to pressurize a union to accept wage and language rollbacks (e.g., “agree to a 10% wage cut within 14 days or we’ll sack 10% of your members”). This “pick-your-poison” strategy is designed to trigger internal dissent within the union. 
  2. 24-Hour Lockout: Employers may push bargaining to impasse in order to impose a short lockout, followed by a return to work under the employer’s last offer. This would allow employers to impose rollbacks, unless the union can mount a strike. 
While these levers look powerful, they aren't overwhelmingly so.

Layoffs threats at the bargaining table are very provocative. An employer that makes such threats runs the risk of radicalizing the members of the union (essentially creating a viable strike threat where none existed). The leverage generated by a layoff threat can also be reduced by the union inoculating its members (“The employer is going to do X, our response is Y.”).

Further, layoff threats (while real) are not easy for institutions to implement. In my faculty association, it costs the employer approximately 18 months of salary to lay off association members. So, a layoff imposes an immediate financial penalty on the employer.

Further, the work done by a laid-off staff member (which contributes to revenue generation) must be either forgone or done by someone else. My experience with past rounds of layoffs is that the survivors are often unwilling and unable to pick up the extra work caused by layoffs, In fact, the survivors often stop working as hard as they previously were because of the sense of betrayal caused by the layoffs.

Now, the government and senior PSE administrators probably couldn’t care less about the fate of individual workers or organizational morale. But they don't have any interest in seeing institutions obviously failing because of layoffs they imposed. So, while layoff threats are real and can be powerful, they are not as powerful as everyone imagines.

Similarly, the threat of a 24-hour lockout is easily overblown. A credible strike threat by a union means a 24-hour lockout is not an effective employer strategy: the union can just strike to avoid going back under the employer’s terms. Further, triggering a work stoppage (thus compromising students’ access to education) will look bad on the employer if the union chooses to weaponize such behaviour in the realm of public opinion.

Developing the processes and membership buy-in necessary to have a credible strike threat will be a challenge from some faculty associations. Sophisticated administrators (and unsophisticated faculty association leaders) have worked hard to frame PSE labour relations as a technical exercise, rather than as a political struggle, over the years.

An aggressive government egging on PSE employers is an opportunity for these faculty association to engage in some rapid re-framing of labour relations. And the bargaining delays caused by COVID-19 give these associations the time to lay the political and practical ground work necessary for them to have a credible strike threat.

A credible strike threat also ups the cost to government of imposing cuts on post-secondary institutions. This can, in turn, blunt or redirect government policy. For example, if the public-sector is rocked by strikes and service disruptions and government approval is plummeting because its budgeting assumptions were obviously ludicrous and are not generating the jobs that were promised, a low-tax strategy may suddenly look less attractive than, say, developing an adequate tax-base to afford the public services voters desire.

-- Bob Barnetson