New labour legislation a burden on Alberta businesses, chambers say

Small, medium and large businesses face rising labour costs in 2018 when the province’s new employment laws take effect.

'Believe me, we are not rolling in dough,' restaurant owner says

The Employment Standards code falls under Bill 17: The Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, passed last summer. (supplied)

Small, medium and large businesses will face rising labour costs in 2018, when the province's new employment laws take effect.

As of Jan. 1, the rules governing holiday pay, overtime, and vacation are changing to ensure everyone is eligible for these benefits.

Ken Kolby, president and CEO of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, said the pressure on businesses is too much.

"It all goes to layering of costs," Kolby told CBC News Thursday. "The reality is when you start layering small costs, on top of small costs, on top of small costs, it compounds to become a big cost."

Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray acknowledged most employers in the province already go above the minimum standards that will be required under the Employment Standards Code, but said the rules needed to be put on paper. 
Labour Minister Christina Gray says the Employment Standards Code ensures the most vulnerable Albertans have job protection. (CBC)

"We need to make sure this code is updated for those vulnerable employees who rely on that minimum for their protections," Gray said.

She said one of the most important parts of the legislation is making sure employees don't lose their jobs if they take a sick day.

"I spoke to a chef who passed out from heat exhaustion and didn't go in to work the next day, and he lost his job because there was no job-protected sick leave," she told CBC News. 

Working in a restaurant — are you now able to go near anything such as knives or fat fryer or things like that?- Ken Kolby, president and CEO of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce

New job protections include expanded maternal/parental leave and compassionate leave to care for an ill family member.

Albertans were paying into the federal employment insurance system, but when taking time off, they weren't guaranteed through Alberta law to have a job to return to.

Gray said the new legislation brings Alberta up to speed with the rest of the country.

"We did not have the job protection that other provinces had," Gray said. "Alberta was out of step with other areas."

Changes to youth job duties

Kolby argues the legislation makes workers under 18 less attractive to hire, in part because youth will be restricted from doing some tasks now deemed hazardous by the government.

"The duties that they'll be able to perform in your employment will be decreasing or they'll make it very difficult to accommodate," he said.

Kolby said it's still unclear what those job restrictions are.

"Working in a restaurant — are you now able to go near anything such as knives or fat fryer or things like that?"

Workers under 18 will get paid the same minimum wage as an experienced workers, even though many employers may perceive the younger workers to not be as skilled or efficient.

Minimum wage changes

Alberta's minimum wage went up Oct. 1 from $12.20 to $13.60 and it's set to go up again to $15.00 on Oct. 1, 2018.

Patrick Saurette, co-owner of The Marc restaurant in Edmonton and the restaurant representative on Edmonton's Downtown Business Association, said independent businesses like his need something to balance the rising costs.

"The rush to 15 [dollars] has been very difficult for a lot of industries, particularly retail, as well as restaurants," Saurette told CBC News Thursday.

He said the province should return to separate pay rates, where liquor servers earn less than workers in other industries.

"I would love to see it frozen right now at $13.60 and continue the minimum wage raise to $15 for everybody else."

He said the savings would go toward salaries for cooks, dishwashers and front-of-house staff, who do not benefit directly from tips.

In the past two years since the wages rose from $10.70 to $13.60, Saurette said he and his wife have cut staff hours, increased menu prices and kept less profit for themselves.

"Profit is not a dirty word, and we sure don't make an awful lot at the end of the day," he said.

"Believe me, we are not rolling in dough."

Regulations just released

The new labour code passed in the legislature last summer.

But the regulations outlining specific rules were just released on Dec. 5, giving employers little time to prepare, Kolby said.

"There's probably not a whole lot accountants [open] that small businesses can phone ... and ask questions of how they should be implemented." 
Ken Kolby, president of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, says the employment legislation will hurt businesses and young workers. (Alberta Chambers of Commerce)

Gray said the province did a five-week consultation before passing the legislation and also relied on consultations done by the previous government.

"We are doing everything we can to support businesses to help them understand the changes," she said. "We've been working with business organizations like the chamber to get the information out."

Gray said anyone with questions about the new rules should check out the province's labour ministry website.

Union says new code 'long overdue'

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said the legislation is a 'long-overdue' improvement to Alberta's labour laws.

"Paying disabled employees minimum wage, extending maternity and compassionate care leave and providing up to 10 days domestic violence leave for example, is all good news for workers," said AUPE vice-president Susan Slade.

The AUPE said the legislation should go further to include banning employers from using replacement workers during a lockout or strike. 

Gray noted the legislation hadn't been updated since 1988, but Kolby disagreed and said parts of the existing laws had been amended over the years.

The legislation includes a penalty system to encourage businesses to comply.


About the Author

Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.