Friday, October 28, 2022

Alberta KB decision on government edicts prohibiting mandatory masking in workplaces

Recently, I blogged about how the UCP’s changes to joint health and safety committees has basically rendered them ineffective. I used the elimination of masking mandates at Athabasca University (and other PSEs) as an example of how the internal responsibility system and the external responsibility system were failing workers.

Of note was the direction given PSE institutions by the Minister of Advanced Education to drop masking requirements. My position was that the Minister did not have the authority to order institutions to not comply with the OHS Act (which obligates them to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect workers from occupational hazards, such as COVID).

Yesterday, a Court of King’s Bench decision dropped that is relevant. In it, the judge notes that the Minister of Education, who prohibited school boards from requiring mandatory masking, had overstepped her authority. The nub of it was that the Minister needed to issue such direction in the form of a regulation, rather than just make a statement. Absent a regulation, the Education Act empowers school boards to make their own policies.

Presumably, PSE boards of governors would be in the same situation as school boards since section 59 of the Post-Secondary Learning Act (which addresses the power of PSE boards) is very similar to the language in the Education Act. That is to say, boards are not enjoined from implementing mandatory masking (or vaccination) policies simply because the Minister of Advanced Education said so.

If cabinet enacts a regulation (under the Regulations Act) enjoining boards from implementing masking policies, we them to consider whether such a regulation trumps the requirement set out in section 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act that boards, as employers, must take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety of workers. This includes an obligation, under section 9 of the OHS Code to control hazards.

This is all mostly an academic matter for two reasons. 

First, COVID-related policies in Alberta PSEs seem to fall clearly into the “minimizer” camp and decisions about protections are simply left to individuals. Basically, there is no political will among campus administrators to protect workers or students from COVID. 

Individualizing OHS issues (e.g., “you can wear a mask if you like”) ignore that masking is most effective when it is uniformly adopted. This makes intuitive sense: if everyone masks, we have two layers of protection against aerosol transmission versus one layer under the current "wild west" policy approach. This approach also ignores that ventilation (something only an employer can address) can reduce transmission.

Second, as I wrote about in September, Alberta’s OHS officers seem unwilling to engage with the hazard of aerosol transmission. This seems like an enormous dereliction of duty given Alberta’s workplace COVID stats (the screen cap below is from October 28, 2022--note the sectoral distribution of COVID claims...). Clearly COVID is a serious workplace hazard in Alberta. The only sector that seems to still recognize that is health care.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 21, 2022

Research: Where did AU's HR director go?

Students are typically taught research methods as a very formal process. Basically, the literature yields hypotheses that we then test to confirm or reject. This is a pedagogically sound approach to teaching methods, but it often obscures the kinds of research that most students will do in their jobs. In the workplace, research is often triggered by running across something curious. We then look for other information that we can use to substantiate and explain whatever it is that we found. 

For example, every June 30, public-sector employers in Alberta are required to disclose the compensation of any workers who makes over a certain amount ($141,183 in 2022). The resulting administrative data can be a rich source of information, including information incidental to the actual purpose of the disclosure (which, one supposes, is transparency).

If you look at Athabasca University’s disclosure list for 2021, one of the things you can find is that the Director of HR was on the disclosure list in 2018, 2019, and 2020, but is no longer on the list in 2021. That’s weird, because she is still (in late 2022) the Director of HR.

So, how might we explain that (i.e., what are the possible hypotheses)? There are a couple of potential explanations. The most likely explanation is simple error. Regulatory disclosures require manipulating a lot of data and, from hard experience, I know it is pretty easy to lose a row of data.

We could test this explanation by asking if this is an oversight (which is what I did). Even if we get very politely told to mind our own business (lol), if it is an oversight, flagging it should result in a correction. Absent a correction, we can likely discount the oversight explanation.

Some other potential explanations include:
  • Name change: A change in name may create the appearance the data is missing by moving the location of the data. Sorting the data by job title reveals this explanation is not correct. 
  • Salary reduction: A 37% reduction in salary would result in the Director’s salary data being excluded from the disclosure. That is a possible explanation (that is difficult to further test), but it seems unlikely so I'm going to set it aside for now.
  • Personal safety: Data can be excluded if inclusion would create a threat to someone’s personal safety (e.g., someone has a stalker). Since the Director appears on externally facing websites, we can likely discount this explanation.
  • Change in status: Disclosure is only required for employees; if the Director somehow negotiated a change in her status from employee to a contractor, she would be excluded from the disclosure.
Looking at these explanations, the last one is the most likely. So, can we find other data that supports this explanation? Surprisingly, yes. A quick google search turns up this in incorporation document from Ohio.

Basically, someone with the same (and rather unique) name as the HR Director incorporated a company in early 2021. Additional googling (that I won't share) suggests this person moved to Ohio in the autumn of 2020 and is about the same age as the current Director. The firm that initially filed these documents is a firm that deals with cross border (i.e., US and Canadian) tax files.

Although these facts don't conclusively prove anything, they do create some compelling circumstantial support for the premise that the Director’s disappearance from the salary disclosure is the result of a change in status. This explanation also has an internal consistency to it: converting a senior employee to a contractor would be a highly unusual step. Such a conversion might make sense, though, if the person was working from another country.

If we wanted to further substantiate this potential explanation through triangulation, we could either look for an administrative record that the university has some kind of contractual relationship with Caerus Consulting LLC or tap into our social network to find out if anyone knows if the Director relocated to Ohio.

This sort of research is relevant because it may help us understand, in part, the resistance by members of the university executive to the demand by the Government of Alberta that executive members live in the community of Athabasca. (My understanding is that some other executive members also live out of province).

This sort of real-world research is pretty common for HR and LR practitioners and uses many of the same skills and techniques as the more formal approach to research that is taught in such courses as SOSC 366: Research Methods in the Social Sciences. But the application and the conclusions tend to be a bit looser and less exacting.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Blue-collar work and the Kenney government

CBC recently ran a very interesting first-person account from a Calgary welder about his experiences in the oil-and-gas sector. You can read the piece here. The nub of the account is that working conditions for welders in the sector are poor and are driving workers away. It is an interesting and well-written piece.

I flag it for a couple of reasons. One of the more tedious talking points of the Kenney government is that there is some kind of esteem gap between white-collar and blue-collar occupations. The gist of the narrative is that people (e.g., students, parents, teachers, and workers) think they are too good to do a blue-collar job (so basically it is a worker-blaming narrative, not all that different than equally ridiculous assertion that people no longer want to work).

Like most things Jason Kenney said as premier, there isn’t really any evidence that this esteem gap exists. (The two people I have been happiest to see in my life are an ER doc and a plumber, and not necessarily in that order.) Rather, this putative esteem-gap is just a dog-whistle pretext designed to justify increasing investment in skilled trades training and reduced investment in university education. Why would Kenney do that?

Well, Kenney’s actions as a federal minister suggest he often assists employers to minimize labour costs buy flooding the labour market with workers (think back to the temporary foreign worker deluge of 2008-12). Increasing the number of skilled trades people allows employers to suppress demands for better wages and working conditions because there is always a surplus of workers.

The first-person account of working in a welding shop in the oil-and-gas industry unintentionally highlights a number of structural reasons that workers may be reluctant to engage in blue-collar work (that have nothing to do with people thinking they are too good for that work):
  • Job demands: The author flags that the work is difficult, dangerous, and often entails working in unpleasant conditions at odd times. Workers are often unwilling or unable to work in these conditions. This has historically constrained the labour force and driven up wages. Corporations have responded in many ways to reduce labour costs, such as automation, off-shoring, and subcontracting work.
  • Insecurity: The oil-and-gas sector has organized work in ways that externalizes risk onto workers (in the form of layoffs and wage cuts) to maximize corporate profitability. The author notes that one new and very skilled worker had soured on the industry after three layoffs in five years. (This insecurity also a key barrier to apprentices completing their training, but note that Kenney’s training announcements never engage with this issue.)
  • Restructuring: The author notes that austerity, tax cuts, and rising energy prices had made him hopeful that his job would have more security. This didn’t happen because trickle-down economics (which is what he’s talking about) doesn’t work. Very crudely speaking, if you give wealthy individuals and corporations additional income (through tax cuts), they don’t create jobs with it: they just horde it. By contrast, policies that raise wages for low-income workers do create new jobs because low-income workers spend the money and that creates demand (and new jobs).
In the end, the author acknowledges that working in the industry used to provide a stable living but no longer does. Not surprisingly, he leaves the industry to teach high-school kids welding skills and all but two members of his original crew either quit or were laid off.

So, what can we learn from this:
  • Employers care about profit and treat workers instrumentally. If there is a way to increase profit and the effect is to make workers’ lives worse, employers will do so. This is particularly the case when there is a surplus of workers so the workers have little labour market power to exert.
  • Governments, especially conservatives ones, are typically happy to help employers create a loose labour market that worsens wages and working conditions. To stifle dissent about policies that are actually screwing the workers who comprise the bulk of the electorate, governments will happily invent or manipulate facts. No one wants to work. People think they are too good for blue-collar work. And so forth. 
  • Workers are often unable or unwilling to incorporate this dynamics into their analysis of how the world works. Instead, they will cheer-lead policies that harm their interests (e.g., tax cuts and austerity that destroy the public services they depend upon) in the hope they will see greater stability or a modest wage increase. They will also adopt explanatory narratives that blame workers (people look down in the trades) while ignoring that workers may well be making rational and well-informed choices about what job options are best for them.
Even a modest amount of critical thinking raises some pretty profound questions about these narratives. Why, for example, might workers not be keen to take certain jobs? Is it because they are innately lazy or think too highly of themselves or are misinformed? Or is it because the jobs are organized in ways that make them, relatively speaking, difficult, unstable, and poorly paid, and thus workers don’t see them as a good choice? Are there impediments (such a childcare availability and shift work) that make it impossible or uneconomical for workers to take these jobs?

This kind of questioning is typically taught in the liberal arts, which is the exact kind of education that the Kenney government has aggressively defunded. That is probably not a coincidence.

-- Bob Barnetson