Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Census data on commuting

Statistics Canada has provided some analysis around commuting in several of Canada’s larger urban centres—comparing commuting in the 1996 and 2016 censuses. Commuting is one form of labour mobility that we’ll be addressing in LBST 325: Labour mobility and migrant workers, when this course opens late in 2020.

Canada-wide, the finding include:
  • Jobs have been moving away from city centres.
  • Public transit use among traditional commuters (suburb to core) increased.
  • Active forms of transportation are increasingly be used by residents within city cores. 
Table 4 shows commuting distances for workers. 

In both, Edmonton and Calgary, commuting distances appear to be increasing. This may reflect both the growth in city size and the dispersal of jobs out of the central core of the city. Public transit use (roughly 25%) and active commuting (about 10%) is highest among those with commutes under 5 km and drops off sharply after that. Public transit use is also highest among traditional commuters and within-core commuters—perhaps reflecting the set up on transit infrastructure.

Interestingly, for both Edmonton and Calgary, the largest category of commuting is commutes over 5km between suburbs (43% and 39% respectively). This is followed by traditional commutes (suburbs to core) at 22% and 30% and commutes of less than 5km within suburbs at 22% and 18%.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Some budget and policy priorities for Alberta Labour in 2020

The Kenney government will be tabling Alberta’s 2020 budget on February 27. Some labour-side activists got together earlier this year to identify five some budgetary and policy initiatives that should (but likely won’t) be in the 2020 budget. These changes would improve the lives of working Albertans.

This ideas include indexing the minimum wage, budgeting for inflationary increases to public-sector salaries, preventing employers from evading overtime pay through “overtime banking” arrangements, better enforcing laws designed to prevent workplace injuries, and implementing paid short-term sick leave.

The minimum wage

In 2015, Alberta’s minimum wage rose from $10.20/hr. to $15.00/hr., representing a 47% increase. Prior to the 2018 increase, approximately 254,000 Albertans (13.3% of the workforce) earned less than $15/hr. Of these workers, 75% were at least 20-years-old, 63% were women, 37% were parents, 53% worked full time, and 75% had permanent jobs.

The three-year, 47% increase in the minimum wage moved Alberta from having one of the lowest minimum wages to the highest among provinces. The 2018 increase was the last announced increase in the minimum wage. Inflation is now eroding the purchasing power of minimum-wage workers. Further, the minimum wage for workers under 18 enrolled in school was lowered to $13 per hour in 2019.

Indexing the minimum wage to inflation would ensure minimum-wage workers can continue to afford to provide for themselves and their families. Prior to the 2015 election of the NDP government, Alberta indexed the minimum wage to the average of annual increases of the Average Weekly Earnings and the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Mirroring the annual increase in the CPI provides a simple and consistent method by which to adjust the minimum wage.

Public-sector wages

Alberta spends approximately $26.9 billion on public-sector wages annually. Almost all public servants have seen their wages frozen since 2017. Given the erosive effect of inflation, this means that the real-dollar income (i.e., purchasing power) of most public servants has declined by approximately 3.5%. Alberta’s government achieved freezes in most public-sector agreements in 2019/20. The combined impact of 2019 inflation and a rollback would be to reduce real-dollar income for public-servants by between 5 and 8%.

Reducing the real-dollar income of public servants means that these workers are effectively subsidizing the cost of public services through diminished income. This is unfair because public-sector workers already pay taxes. Declining public-sector wages reducing consumer spending and make it difficult to recruit and retain public-sector workers. Alberta’s experience with nursing shortages after the wage freezes and funding cuts of the 1990s is an example of this dynamic.

Budgetting for an inflationary increase to public-sector wages would stabilize public-sector incomes. If inflation is approximately 2.0%, indexing public-sector wages would cost approximately $540 million in 2020.

Overtime pay

Alberta’s Employment Standards Code requires employers to pay workers an overtime (OT) premium when they work beyond 8 hours in a day or 44 hours in a month. This overtime premium is 1.5 times their normal wage rate (e.g., a worker earning $15 per hour would be entitled to pay of $23.50 per hour for every hour of over time).

Allowing employers to require work beyond a normal work week creates operational flexibility. Requiring employers to increase workers’ wages by 50% when overtime is required is intended to incentivize employers to hire more workers, rather than over-working their existing workforce.

Alberta requires OT to be paid out unless the employer and worker have entered into an overtime banking agreement. A banking agreement allows workers to defer overtime pay and take it in subsequent pay periods as time off. Banking arrangements are common in industries where work is seasonal or unpredictable, with workers drawing down banked overtime when work slows down. While employees theoretically enter into OT banking arrangements voluntarily, in practice, employers can use their greater power in the workplace to impose such agreements.

In June of 2019, Alberta amended its overtime rules. This amendment meant that banked over time was banked at straight time. So, 10 hours of banked over time would be now paid out as 10 hours of paid time off, not as 15 hours as it was previously. This change allows employers to evade the overtime premium.

This change has significant financial implications. In 2018, approximately 413,200 Albertans worked an average of 10 hours per week in OT at an average wage of $30.76 per hour. With OT factored in, these hours yielded each worker an average of $461.40 in total pay. If employers implemented OT banking, they could save an average $153.80 per week per worker.

If employers implemented OT banking arrangements for every worker, this would transfer approximately $3.3 billion in OT premiums from workers to employers. This transfer may incentivize some employers (particularly in seasonal industries, such as upstream oil and gas) to minimize additional hiring. It also significantly reduces the income that workers have available to support their families and spend in the economy.

Occupational health and safety

Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (along with it associated regulation and Code) requires employers to ensure workplaces are safe and healthy. Alberta employs approximately 140 Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) inspectors. These inspectors conducted 16,410 inspections (inspecting a total of 8,152 workplaces) in 2018/19. Inspectors wrote 16,680 OHS compliance orders while prosecutors laid 16 charges for OHS violations in 2018/19.

While the numbers of inspections and orders have trended upwards over time, only about 4% of Alberta employers will receive an OHS inspection this year. This means employers face little chance of being caught violating the law. The most common sanction if they are caught is an order to simply comply with the law.

Given this limited enforcement effort, it is not surprising that a recent study suggests only half of Alberta employers comply with even the most basic of OHS requirements (i.e., identifying hazards and control strategies). Additional funding would permit the Ministry to conduct additional compliance blitzes that target high-risk industries or employers with a history of non-compliance.

Non-compliance with OHS rules results in approximately 170,000 disabling injuries annually. Disabling injuries are injuries that mean a worker cannot go to work the next day or requires modified job duties. Overall, approximately 400,000 Albertans experience some sort of major or minor occupational injury or illness in each year (roughly 1 in 5 workers). Additional OHS inspectors and additional resources for prosecution will increase employer compliance. This should, in turn, reduce the level of occupational injury in Alberta. Adding 350 OHS inspectorS would cost roughly $70 million per year.

Paid sick leave

In 2018, Alberta granted all employees 5 days of job-protected leave to deal with personal and family responsibilities, such as illness. Alberta was one of the last Canadian jurisdictions to require employers to do so. While not losing a job if a worker (or a worker’s child) becomes sick is an important right, low-wage workers may not be able to afford to exercise their right to leave because it is unpaid leave.

For example, approximately 254,000 Albertans earn the minimum wage of $15 per hour. If these workers work a 40-hour week, their gross annual incomes are $31,200. Few of these workers will have employer-paid sick leave. Taking five unpaid days of sick leave means forgoing $600 in gross income. Losing out on 25% of one month’s salary may not be financially possible for low-wage workers. Consequently, they may come to work sick or send their children to school while sick to avoid this wage loss, thereby potentially infecting others and increasing the cost of illness.

Converting Alberta’s current job protected leave to deal with personal and family responsibilities from unpaid to paid leave will make this right more accessible to Albertans employed in low-wage jobs.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

New course at AU: Union Busting 101

This post originally appeared on the Athabasca University Faculty Association blog:

A recurring question about Athabasca University’s proposal to de-designate 67% of the AUFA membership is why AU is doing this. One explanation is that de-designation may be part of a broader union-busting strategy on the part of AU. 

Union-busting: A primer

Union busting occurs when an employer tries to undermine a union’s actual or perceived effectiveness. Typical union-busting tactics include:
  • Impeding union access to members in the workplace.
  • Refusing to respond to or meet with the union.
  • Violating the collective agreement or past settlement agreements.
  • Making unreasonable demands at the bargaining table to trigger a work stoppage.
  • Seeking to reduce the union’s membership.
These strategies are intended to make the union less effective at representing members. The hope is that, over time, union members start to lose confidence in the union because the union struggles to get members what they are due under the contract.

Employers’ long-term goal is to cause workers to become non-unionized. These tactics are generally motivated by the employer’s desire to reduce compensation costs and increase management power.
Union Busting at AU to Date

Over the past three years, a clear pattern of union-busting behaviour has emerged at AU:

  • Impeding access to members: In the autumn of 2018, AU forced AUFA to leave its offices on the main campus after 35 years. Notice was served after an acrimonious day of bargaining, with AU asserting it no longer had space on campus for the union. The former AUFA offices are now little-used photocopier and storage rooms. AUFA’s relocation to the Tim Byrne Centre means it has less physical access to its members. 
  • Refusing to respond or meet: AU continues to not meet timelines in the collective agreement. For example, AUFA recently had to file a grievance in order to get dates for the joint equity committee to even meet. In 2018 AUFA documented over 40 instances of ignored emails or missed timelines. And a recent reclassification request (with a 25-day timeline) that started last March is still not done. Meetings with HR are more difficult following AU’s decision to relocate key labour relations staff 150km away from the main campus (where AUFA’s staff are based).
  • Violating contracts: AU routinely violates the contract and/or grievance settlement agreements and refuses to remedy obvious errors. Some examples include:
  1. In 2017, AU issued a defective discipline notice. Instead of re-issuing the notice with the correct information, AU forced the matter to arbitration. At arbitration, AU admitted it knew the notice was defective. This dragged out the dispute for more than a year, causing the member great distress. 
  2. In early 2019, AU stole vacation leave from a sick member. Instead of remedying the matter, AU forced the matter to arbitration. Nine months later, after the member’s terminally ill spouse was forced to testify, AU reversed its decision on the basis of medical information that it already had. 
  3. In the summer of 2019, AU violated a 2014 settlement agreement. The agreement specified a new supervisor for the member and a process for any future supervisory changes (requiring member and AUFA consent). AU ignored the settlement agreement and re-assigned the member to a new supervisor without consent. Instead of remedying the issue, AU is forcing AUFA to grieve the violation. The slow pace of arbitration means the member will likely be stuck with the violation for more than a year. 
  1. non-therapeutic examination by company doctors at HR’s request,
  2. the immediate suspension without pay or termination before discipline appeals were heard,
  3. a 50% reduction in layoff notice,
  4. reducing recall rights for staff,
  5. the elimination of the existing probationary review process for professionals, and
  6. the power to terminate probationary professionals with no recourse.
  • Reducing membership: In December, AU presented AUFA with a draft designation policy that would remove approximately 67% of AUFA members from the bargaining unit. If implemented, this proposal will profoundly weaken the bargaining power of AUFA (bargaining starts again in March or April). It will also negatively impact the pension eligibility and bargaining power of any current members who are excluded by the policy.
These behaviours appear designed to reduce AUFA’s ability to represent its members and, thereby, reduce members’ confidence in AUFA. Taken together and using a balance of probabilities test, the pattern strongly suggests that AU is engaged in a union-busting strategy.
What’s is Next?

While it isn’t possible to know exactly what AU’s next moves will be, here are some things to watch for:

  • Gaslighting: AU is likely to deny that it is involved in union busting in order to make us question our perceptions and fight among ourselves. As we saw during last week’s restructuring meetings, HR is denying its intention is to de-designate AUFA members even though the draft policy AU advanced has that exact effect. 
  • Further instability: Last week, AU announced it will undergo a restructuring. Oddly, the specifics of this have not yet been fully worked out and won’t be implemented for some months. This announcement may be an effort by AU to change the channel (i.e., draw out attention away from the designation fight, which AU is losing). It may also be an effort to scare AUFA members, who might be concerned about their jobs. Expect more of this.
  • Job Losses: AU may roll out early retirement packages and/or layoff notices over the next few months. Based on AU’s most recent financial and enrollment reports, there is no financial need for a reduction in staff. Indeed, there has been a significant increase in executive staff over the past year. The instability typically cause by buy-outs and layoffs can be seen as another effort to cow staff.
  • Quick Move to De-designate: AU has indicated it plans to complete the first round of consultation on de-designation by the end of February (although it allows for additional consultation, at its sole discretion). This would position the Board to approve a new policy at its March 27th meeting. 
  • Aggressive bargaining: Bargaining will commence again by the end of April. The government is now able to impose secret and binding bargaining mandates on public-sector employers. This suggests that bargaining is likely to again be difficult and protracted, with a high risk of impasse and work stoppage.
While these expected next moves are disheartening, we are, as a union, able to fight back effectively.
Fighting Back

One of the ironies of AU’s increasingly aggressive approach to labour relations under the watch of President Fassina is growing solidarity between members and a significant loss of trust in Fassina. This growing solidarity is a powerful tool that we can use to oppose AU’s union-busting.

During last year’s bargaining, members actions (such as information pickets, public meetings, workplace sign campaigns, and social media posts) gave the bargaining team the power to resist the employer’s worst proposals. A similar campaign is underway against the designation policy.

It may be necessary to further intensify member actions, depending upon how AU behaves in the coming weeks. AUFA is, of course, also preparing a legal strategy to resist de-designation if member pressure is unsuccessful in thwarting de-designation.

Bob Barnetson, Member
Membership Engagement Committee

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Performance-based funding means more red tape, uncertainty for post-secondary institutions

This post previously appeared on the Parkland Institute Blog.

Last week, the Alberta government announced it will be implementing a performance-based funding model for the province's 26 post-secondary institutions. By 2022/23, 40 percent of institutional operating grants will be “at risk” (i.e., allocated only to the degree that institutions meet certain performance targets).

The government has indicated it will be consulting with institutions about the specific performance measures, and a background document for the consultation is now circulating which suggests there will be about 15 measures tied to funding as well as six other measures that will be reported for transparency purposes.

The document includes examples of each proposed performance measure, but no suggested targets. The targets may be system-wide or may be institution-specific. The metrics tied to funding fall into three broad categories and data sources for these measures have been identified. All of the measures appear to operate at the institutional level. I have summarized the measures below, some of which are a touch unclear.

Labour Market Measures

There are nine measures that assess labour-market outcomes or support for labour-market attachment:
  • Percent of graduates employed two years after graduation
  • Percent of graduates employed in a job related to their credential two years after graduation
  • Percent of graduates employed within six months of graduation
  • Median income of graduates one year after graduation
  • Percent of current students who accessed career counselling
  • Percent of current students who accessed employment services
  • Percent of current students who have taken one or more steps to prepare for a career post-graduation
  • Percent of current students who participated in a work-placement program
  • Percent of employers satisfied that recent graduates were well-prepared across a range of basic skills
These measures frame post-secondary education (PSE) as labour-market training, which is one outcome of PSE. There are no measures of other PSE outcomes (e.g., knowledge creation, critical citizens).

Funding Measures

There are five measures that assess institutional funding:
  • Percent of expenses spent on administration
  • Percent of institutional expenses funded by government (Campus Alberta Grant)
  • Percent of institutional revenue derived from non-mandate-related activity and/or fundraising
  • Full-Load Equivalent (FLE) students divided by total expenditures
  • Sponsored research revenues (for comprehensive research universities only)
These metrics suggest the government desires institutions to reduce their reliance on government funding (the MacKinnon report suggested a target of about 35 percent of revenue from government). The fourth (FLEs divided by total expenditures) measure doesn’t really make any sense to me; the reverse (i.e., expenditures divided by FLEs) would yield spending per student, so perhaps that is the intent.

Institutional reliance on government grants and their capacity to generate non-mandate related revenue (which is not defined in the document but likely includes continuing education courses, campus recreation, and food services revenue) varies widely. This may be an area where institution-specific targets are appropriate.

Enrollment Measures

There are four measures that assess institutional enrollments:
  • Number “domestic” FLE students enrolled
  • Number of international FLE students enrolled
  • Number of Indigenous learners enrolled
  • Number of domestic students enrolled in the 20 highest-demand programs at the institution
Measuring the number of FLEs will require institution-specific targets. The government could use these enrollment targets to pressure institutions to expand enrollments with no additional funding just by changing the targets from one year to the next.

The measure assessing the number of domestic students enrolled in the 20 highest-demand programs is difficult to unpack. The briefing document says a “Post-secondary demand model was developed in 2019 and is currently being finalized. Will be shared with institutions for planning purposes.” This measure may be designed to push institutions to expand access in high-demand programs.

But the definition of high demand is unclear. Is it high demand as defined by student applications? Or is high demand defined by some other group (e.g., employers) or by Alberta labour market forecasts? If high-demand programs vary from year-to-year (which is likely), institutions will struggle to meet targets because most programs span multiple years and expanding and contracting programs is slow and expensive.


The most obvious implication of these draft measures is that the government views PSE uni-dimensionally as labour-market training. While PSE does certainly provide labour-market outcomes for graduates, this funding mechanism does not address the many other outcomes for students of a post-secondary education.

The structure of the performance system is penalty based: institutions that fail to meet targets will see their government grant reduced. This structure may introduce significant instability into a system already grappling with significant reductions in government operating grants. Penalizing institutions that fail to meet these targets will hinder improvement efforts (because there is no money to do so) and it may further degrade institutional performance (because now there is even less money).

Compounding the difficulties that will be caused by this punitive approach is that institutions have little meaningful control over many of the outcomes upon which they are being assessed. For example, the labour market outcomes will be largely driven by general economic conditions and/or the behaviours of students and graduates. If institutions can’t meaningfully influence the outcomes upon which their performance is being assessed, it is reasonable to question whether performance-based funding will have any meaningful impact upon institutional behaviour (other than redirected resources from teaching and research to administrative report-writing). This dynamic seems to sit at odds with the government’s stated desire to reduce “red tape.”

Similarly, institutions have little control over who applies to be a student. The proposed international and Indigenous student measures essentially set quotas based on citizenship and/or heritage. While equity group quotas are a valid policy instrument, these measures seem a touch off-brand for the UCP. For example, if institutions don’t meet the international student target and are financial punished for it, the UCP will be in the odd position of punishing institutions for educating Canadians.

Absent an indication of the targets that are being set, it is hard to assess the probable impact of this system. If the targets are easy to meet, then performance-based funding will have little impact (and is thus a waste of effort). If the targets are too hard to meet, institutions will see likely see a significant loss of funding. For institutions that are highly reliant on government funding and/or are in precarious financial situations, a big loss of funding will be profoundly destabilizing.

-- Bob Barnetson