Edmonton

Temporary labour rules problematic for essential workers, labour leader says

Some temporary changes to labour laws and regulations are an erosion of workers’ rights, the Alberta Federation of Labour says.

Employers can change workers' shifts without notice during coronavirus pandemic

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping approved an order April 6 that eliminates employers' requirements to give workers 24 hours' notice of a shift change. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC)

Some temporary changes to provincial labour laws and regulations introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic are an erosion of workers' rights, the Alberta Federation of Labour says.

Federation president Gil McGowan said Monday he's concerned the Alberta government will attempt to make permanent some ad hoc measures it has adopted during the pandemic.

"They're basically using the crisis as an opportunity to push forward with an agenda that favours their business backers that would otherwise be controversial, and frankly it's offensive," McGowan said.

Employers now have no obligation to give workers 24 hours notice to change their shifts, according to an order by Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping on April 6.

The changes went relatively unnoticed by most during a deluge of pandemic news.

Also gone is a requirement that employers must warn the government of impending mass layoffs of 50 or more employees. For now, they don't need to notify unions or workers of mass layoffs at all.

Temporary layoffs can now be as long as 120 days, up from the usual 60 days.

Workers can also take a leave from work — without risking their job — to care for children who would usually be in school or daycare 

Lastly, the government is expediting employers' applications for exemptions from labour standards rules

Adrienne South, Copping's press secretary, said the short-term measures are only to allow workers and employers to respond to the pandemic and emergency public health orders.

"These temporary changes to the employment standards legislation ensures Albertans can care for themselves and their loved ones during these challenging times, while providing flexibility to Alberta's job creators to ensure their ongoing viability," she said in a Tuesday email.

The measures ensure the safety of the public and employees, South said.

During a public health emergency, Alberta cabinet ministers have the power to suspend or change any law that's counter to the public interest.

Copping heard from people in several industry that they needed greater flexibility to "ensure the workforce and businesses are sustainable," South said.

Pandemic uncertainty prompted need for longer layoffs

Public health orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus have shuttered many businesses and worksites in Alberta, including restaurants and bars, non-essential stores, museums, movie theatres, recreation centres and many more.

With more than half of Alberta members now shut down, Restaurants Canada was one industry group that lobbied the provincial government to extend the temporary layoff period.

Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada's western vice-president, says Alberta restaurants wanted a longer temporary layoff period to keep workers engaged during the pandemic and prevent owing severance payments they can't afford. (CBC)

Mark von Schellwitz, the group's vice-president for western Canada, said about two-thirds of members' 150,000 employees are temporarily laid off in Alberta.

Should the virus linger — and the closures drag on past 60 days — restaurants could be forced to inadvertently terminate employees they'd rather bring back, he said.

"You'd trigger a lot of severance and vacation pay and that type of thing, which, right now, our members are just not in a position to pay with no income coming in at all," he said.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also lobbied the province for a longer temporary layoff period, Alberta provincial director Annie Dormuth said Monday.

"We were hearing from small businesses saying, we're quite worried that if this goes past 60 days, what happens? And, I can't bring back my employees because my business has been mandated closed by the government," she said.

It's unclear which industries asked for other labour standards changes.

No shift change notice problematic for workers

Although McGowan has no problem with the longer layoff period, he says elimination of the 24-hour notice period for shift changes is especially difficult for front-line workers deemed essential by the government.

Many people working in health care, grocery stores, warehouses or trucking may have made child care arrangements for their kids during their shifts.

The three-quarters of Alberta workers who are non-unionized are particularly vulnerable, McGowan said.

"This is an erosion of workplace rights, plain and simple, and it's a slap in the face to all these workers that had been deemed essential," he said.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says the temporary labour standards changes are an erosion of workers' rights. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Also troubling to McGowan are government steps to make it easier for employers to get exemptions from labour standards. These exemptions allow some employers or employer groups to temporarily exceed legal limits on consecutive hours of work, required rest periods, days of rest and minimum hours of work.

McGowan said granting of exemptions already happens behind closed doors — workers don't know when employers want to suspend their rights and there's no avenue for appeal.

Giving easier access to that power is inappropriate during a pandemic, he said.

The temporary measures could be in place until 60 days after Alberta's public health emergency ends, or, the labour minister or cabinet cancels the order.

Cabinet declared a public health emergency in response to COVID-19 on March 17, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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