By Trevor Busch
Sweeping changes to Alberta’s labour legislation have now been passed, a shake-up close to three decades in the making for the NDP who had long campaigned for improvements under the previous PC government.
Introduced in late May and known as the Fair and Friendly Workplaces Act, the bill — which was passed at the end of the spring session — brings maternity and compassionate leave up to federal standards, and sets in place new regulations for overtime and vacation pay.
“This is probably the biggest omnibus bill we’ve ever seen. It was the size of a phonebook to tell you the truth,” said Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter. “Wide-sweeping, and yet five weeks worth of consultation — this seems to be the m.o. (modus operandi) of this government, is lack of consultation. That’s very disappointing.”
Workers will now be permitted to take unpaid leave due to sickness, injury, a death in the family, a missing child, or being a victim of domestic violence — labour provisions which had never previously existed in Alberta.
Job protection for maternity leave has been extended to 16 weeks from 15 weeks, and parental leave to 52 weeks from 37 weeks.
Hunter indicated the Wildrose had pushed for the bill to be spun off into two separate pieces of legislation, but the NDP ultimately declined this suggestion on the part of the official opposition.
“One thing we did say after we took a fairly cursory look at this, is why don’t you guys break this thing up into two bills, one talking about how we need to help Albertans that are struggling — the compassionate part of the bill — and the other, which is labour legislation, changing union rules and when you can unionize, let’s break that out and give employers and all sorts of stakeholders time to be able to digest it and figure out the right way forward,” said Hunter.“They said no to that, they weren’t interested in breaking it up into two different bills.”
The legislation also includes changes to overtime, which will now be banked at 1.5 hours for every hour worked instead of straight time. Also, overtime can now be banked for up to six months.
Employers will also be required to provide a minimum 30-minute break (paid or unpaid) for every five hours of consecutive employment, and would no longer be able to pay individuals with disabilities less than minimum wage. The minimum legal age of work has also been raised to 13 from 12.
Essential services rules are being extended to the continuing care sector, health care labs, and blood supply workers to ensure key staff remain in place during labour disputes. In the agricultural sector, however, family members employed on a family farm will be exempt from all employment standards.
Changes which raised some concern amongst the opposition allow unions to be certified without a secret ballot if more than 65 per cent of employees have verified membership cards, while less than 66 per cent would still require a vote.
Hunter acknowledged that it was probably time to review and reform labour legislation in the province, but objected to provisions which he asserts “stack the deck” for unions.
“I do, but once again, the things that they’ve thrown in there address the issues that both the employer and the employee believe need to be addressed, but they’ve moved into things like stacking the deck for unions because that’s their base. When they do that sort of thing, then we’ll call foul.”
The labour legislation changes are to take effect on Jan. 1, 2018.