Alberta to Overhaul Workplace Rules for First Time in Almost 30 Years

The Alberta government recently introduced a bill to modernize Alberta’s workplace laws entitled the Fair Family-Friendly Workplaces Act. Provincial labour relations and employment standards in Alberta are governed by the Alberta Labour Code and Employment Standards Code, respectively. Although there have been amendments over the years, the Alberta Labour Code and Employment Standards Code have not been significantly updated in almost 30 years.

A major focus of the bill is the creation and expansion of unpaid leaves of absence from work. For parents, the bill would align Alberta with federal standards by extending maternity leave by one week to 16 weeks and parental leave from 37 weeks to 52 weeks. Compassionate care leave would be extended from eight weeks to 27 weeks. The bill also seeks to create the following new unpaid leaves:

  • Long-term Illness and Injury Leave (16 weeks);
  • Personal and Family Responsibility Leave (five days);
  • Bereavement Leave (three days);
  • Domestic Violence Leave (10 days);
  • Citizenship Ceremony Leave (half-day);
  • Critical Illness of a Child Leave (36 weeks); and
  • Death or Disappearance of a Child (52 weeks when a child disappeared as a result of a crime, or up to 104 weeks when a child died as a result of a crime).

Although employees may already enjoy job protection guarantees through the Alberta Human Rights Act for the matters covered by the new leaves, the bill purports to clarify that the above leaves are the mandatory minimum standard applicable to provincial workplaces.

Additional key features of the bill includes reducing the eligibility period for all job-protected leaves from one year to 90 days; requiring overtime hours to be banked at 1.5 times an employee’s wage rate instead of straight time; introducing stronger enforcement and administrative penalties for contraventions of the Employment Standards Code; increasing the minimum age to work to 13; clarifying what deductions can be made from an employee’s wages; and requiring a minimum of a 30-minute break for every 5 hours of consecutive employment.

For unionized workplaces, the major proposed amendments include re-introducing a card check provision in the certification process and introducing first contract arbitration when a newly certified workplace is unable to reach agreement on a first collective agreement.

With respect to card-checks, certification in Alberta (like British Columbia) is currently a two-step process: (1) employees who would make up the proposed bargaining unit sign cards indicating their support of certification; and (2) if the union can show the Alberta Labour Relations Board that 40% of the proposed bargaining unit have signed cards, a secret ballot vote is conducted approximately 10 days later. Under a card-check system, if a union can show a clear majority of employees have signed cards in support of the union, the Labour Relations Board dispenses with the need for a secret ballot vote and certifies the union. The debate between a card check system and secret ballot vote is political as card check systems generally lead to an increase in successful certification drives.

Another large (but likely underreported) amendment is the shift of the onus of proof in unfair labour practices complaints (i.e., complaints involving discipline, dismissal or other alleged intimidation of an employee for supporting a union). The bill proposes that the employer would be required to prove the action it took does not constitute an unfair labour practice, rather than requiring the employee to try to prove that it does. This proposed revision accords with the law in British Columbia and would make it more difficult for employers to fight allegations of inappropriate conduct during the certification process.

The 252 page bill passed first reading in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta on May 24, 2017. Although it is not yet law and subject to debate in the legislative assembly, it is likely that the bill will ultimately pass given the majority status of the provincial government in Alberta.

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