Greenhouse operators scrambling to adapt to Alberta's new employment standards

Local greenhouse owners are changing their hiring practices and closely monitoring workers' overtime as the first growing season since an update of Alberta's employment standards gets underway.

Seasonal employers seeking exemption to new rules governing overtime pay

Kuhlmann's and other local greenhouses are adapting to new labour rules that came into effect in January. (Kuhlmann's )

Local greenhouse owners are changing their hiring practices and closely monitoring workers' overtime as the first growing season since an update of Alberta's employment standards gets underway. 

"We just have to watch closer, we have to watch how we are scheduling, what type of people we are hiring," said Dave Sproule, who owns Salisbury Greenhouse near Sherwood Park. 

The minimum wage hike and changes to overtime rules are affecting his bottom line, Sproule told CBC News.

"This is going to cost us thousands and thousands of dollars. That's just the reality of it, and it's part of doing business."

As they try to adjust to the changes that came into effect in January, greenhouse operators and other seasonal businesses are also asking for an exemption from the new rules.

Changes to employment rules

Alberta's overtime rules were overhauled last year under the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act.

Overtime hours were previously banked using a one-to-one ratio, meaning that banked hours could be paid out during a less busy time, at no extra cost for the employer.

"This was pretty widely used across the industry. It allowed for folks to make hay while the sun was shining," said Joel Beaston, president of Landscape Alberta.

But with the change that went into effect Jan. 1, employers must now give employees time off work with pay at a rate of 1.5 hours for each hour of overtime worked.
Anita McDonald says she had to raise the prices of the greenhouse plants to offset the increased cost of doing business. (Kuhlmann's)

The change has made Anita McDonald, co-owner of Kuhlmann's Market Gardens and Greenhouses in northeast Edmonton, more selective when hiring seasonal staff. 

Mature candidates who are able to perform a variety of duties are preferable, she said.

"I think it really restricts at what age I hire. We go a little bit older rather than the really young people."

Sproule is using the same strategy in an attempt to reduce cost. 

"Trying to hire better people, more efficient people, so maybe we can have less people," he said.
Kuhlmann's also operates a vegetable farm and sells vegetables at local farmers' markets. (Kuhlmann's)

Minister's order sought

Greenhouse operators and other seasonal businesses such as landscapers, sod farms, and tree nurseries are hoping Alberta Labour will consider granting them an exemption from the new overtime rules.

"It's so crucial that they have staff during that time period," said Beaston. "They work when the plants need them to work."

Beaston is lobbying the province on behalf of growers, including nurseries and sod farms, to obtain an exemption to the overtime rules. He has applied for a minister's order — an official request to vary or exempt a group of employers from an employment standard. 

Beaston said his association will collect data from its members to track how they are adjusting to the new standards. 

​Prices going up

McDonald said she had no choice but to raise prices in the greenhouse to compensate for the extra cost in labour.

She's worried the price hike will drive customers away from her family-owned business.

"We try to encourage people to shop local, and sometimes the box stores have cheaper prices," said McDonald. "It does affect us, for sure."

Kuhlmann's also operates a vegetable farm, which will employ more seasonal workers during harvest time. McDonald is anticipating another financial crunch.

"It's very labour intensive, we can't go with less people," she said. "But we really don't want to pay the overtime, so we're probably hiring four or five extra people."

Labour minister Christina Gray was not available for comment.

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca