Tips and complaints about workplace harassment rise sharply in Alberta

The former NDP government's overhaul of employment standards and occupational health and safety codes resulted in a surge of anonymous tips and on-the-record complaints about workplace harassment last year.

Anonymous tips about violations of labour standards almost tripled since last year.

The latest Alberta department of labour annual report shows a substantial increase in anonymous tips about alleged workplace problems. (Choices for Youth/Facebook)

The former NDP government's overhaul of employment standards and occupational health and safety codes resulted in a surge of anonymous tips and on-the-record complaints about workplace harassment last year. 

According to the most recent annual report, the labour department received 811 anonymous tips about alleged violations to employment standards in 2018-2019, almost triple the number (315) that came in the previous year. 

For the first time, new rules to deal with violence and harassment in the workplace were spelled out in legislation.

From June 1, 2018, to March 19, 2019, OHS received 773 complaints about harassment or violence.

To improve monitoring and complaint resolution, the department hired 32 new staff to monitor employment standards, the report said, and 17 additional occupational health and safety officers to conduct on-site inspections, often unannounced. 

Sweeping changes to employment standards brought in by the NDP covered a wide spectrum of areas.

Workers were granted the right to refuse to wear stilettos on the job as a workplace safety issue, for example, and a requirement to prepay for gas was adopted to stop dash-and-drive thefts, particularly at convenience stores.

As labour minister in the former NDP government, Christina Gray oversaw substantial changes to labour standards and the occupational health and safety code. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

Christina Gray was the NDP labour minister who ushered in the new measures.

Awareness and enforcement

She said a combination of education and enforcement highlighted the message about worker and employer rights.

"People started talking about employment standards," Gray said during an interview with CBC News.

"I had people who didn't realize they were supposed to have breaks in the middle of an eight-hour day," said Gray, who pointed out that her government didn't add breaks during a shift but it made workers more aware of their rights.

"And when we look at anonymous tips, I see that as more people being aware that there are rights and protections available to them, and making those inquiries in their own situation," she said.

As minister, Gray heard some of the tips that came in to the employment standards contact centre, from both workers and employees.

Many of the "eye-opening" calls, Gray said, dealt with payment issues. 

Either employees weren't getting what they were owed, she said, or owners were having difficult financial times.

"Obviously it can be tough for some employers to make payroll at times, and that can increase the number of complaints. But also during a downturn, the money workers need becomes even more pressing."

The high number of complaints about violence and harassment was likely due to workers and employers acquiring a process to deal with problems that may have been going on for years, she said.

Also contributing to the number of harassment complaints, Gray said, were high-profile stories about workplace violence.

"There were also several big news stories about unhealthy workplaces (such as) the City of Edmonton, there were a number of stories about that." 

Earlier this month the UCP government passed Bill 2, the "open for business act," which a government news release said is intended to "reduce the burden on job creators, restore workplace democracy and get Albertans back to work."

The legislation rolled back wages for young workers, incorporated straight-time payment for banked overtime, and brought back secret ballots to certify unions. 

Under Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping, the UCP government has hired new occupational health and safety officers who are currently in training. (Alberta government)

Minister of Labour and Immigration Jason Copping was not available for an interview.

In an email, press secretary Brittany Baltimore said that department has hired new occupational health and safety officers who are currently in training. 

"Service to Albertans continues to be maintained through timely response to complaints, incidents and fatalities and risk-based approaches to proactive inspections," she said.

In the annual report tabled in the legislature in June, Copping indicated his focus over the next year will be on job creation, developing a skilled workforce and promoting safe, fair and healthy workplaces.

"Looking ahead, we will continue to review and modernize labour legislation and policy to open more opportunities for job creators and workers," Copping wrote. 

Gray is concerned the department may face cuts in the upcoming budget. 

"I'm worried that some of these new health and safety measures might be viewed as red tape," said Gray, who believes adding more resources to reduce wait times was critical to those waiting for paycheques during difficult times. 

In June, the UCP government passed the Red Tape Reduction Act, which is intended to cut so-called red tape by one-third to reduce costs and speed up approvals to free up job creators.

Details of the government's long-term plans will be revealed in the provincial budget. 

Finance Minister Travis Toews has said the next provincial budget will be introduced later this fall.

The legislature is scheduled to resume sitting  Oct. 22, one day after the federal election.