Chris Rauenbusch says he doesn’t know if his employer can summon him to work on a day off after a series of sweeping federal labour reforms went into effect Sunday.
“I don’t know if I am entitled to take a break during a 14-hour shift,” said the 39-year-old flight attendant, who heads WestJet’s union local in Calgary.
His quandary follows a request by employers that Ottawa make some last-minute exemptions or delays to its new rules. The request has left hundreds of thousands of workers and their bosses in sectors from airlines to trucking to telecommunications unclear about whether they are fully covered by the Canada Labour Code overhaul.
As confusion mounted in the lead-up to the changes, Employment Minister Patty Hajdu said certain interim exemptions would apply — at least until further tweaks can be made after the October election — but acknowledged the government was still hammering out who they will ultimately include.
“I can’t actually speak to which employers and which [employee] classes will be subject to these limited exemptions because that is still being worked out with the department right now, and I’m looking forward to their advice,” Hajdu said days before the regulations started to kick in.
“I’m not certain exactly when I’ll have those recommendations.”
The new rules, which apply to the 904,000 workers in federally regulated sectors from banking to the civil service, usher in a suite of changes that mandate new personal leaves and longer bereavement and vacation periods, among other things.
Industry representatives say some of the amendments would delay shipments, cancel flights and hurt the country’s economy, while labour groups argue they are simply asking for reasonable working conditions.
“If you’re a trucking operation and your shipment gets cancelled, you can’t just send the truck anyway. If somebody is sick, you may need somebody else to go,” said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
Rules that fail to take that into account mean “the entire Canadian shipping network and supply chain is put at risk,” according to a May 13 letter to the employment minister from an industry association, Federally Regulated Employers — Transportation and Communications (FETCO), and obtained by The Canadian Press.
An interim exemption will apply to several rules the transport sector says would kneecap its operations, including requirements that employers give staff a 24-hour heads-up on shift changes and four days’ notice for schedules, Employment and Social Development Canada confirmed. A mandated 30-minute break every five hours and an eight-hour rest period between shifts will also exclude some workers.
But which companies and employees will remain unshielded by the new regulations remains uncertain.
“It would be very, very specific classes of employees that, if we were to determine, could be exempt. Because ultimately these changes are about increasing productivity, increasing safety standards and work-life balance,” Hajdu said in a phone interview.
Rauenbusch said the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) recognizes that airline workers occupy a round-the-clock industry and that 24-hours’ notice before a shift change may not always be feasible.
“But just because we happen to be employed in a unique industry doesn’t necessitate simply stripping us of the benefits that the government is trying to afford to workers across the country,” he said.
Kelly countered that wages and longer time-off stretches can compensate for demanding scheduling protocols at airlines, trucking companies and telecoms — where repair and maintenance needs can pop up unpredictably.
“It’s not like employees in these industries are prisoners. They’re often among the most sought-after jobs around because they have other commensurate benefits,” said the CFIB head.
Trucking, however, already faces a serious labour shortage, despite a low barrier to entry. Better benefits could lead to “enhanced recruitment and retention,” the Employment Department said.
Employers expressed frustration with the consultation process after the government agreed to push back implementation by three months from its initial date in June.
“Given that the country is mere days away from Sept. 1, implementation of some of these labour code changes are at great risk of failure. This could have easily been avoided with a proper tripartite process many months ago, or a short delay,” reads an Aug. 28 email from FETCO executive director Derrick Hynes to the Employment Department.
“What we’re waiting for is to hear back from the government around what they feel would be appropriate in terms of granting some temporary relief from some of these changes,” Hynes told The Canadian Press.
The employment minister, “having attended at least one funeral this summer of people that died as a result of a vehicle collision with a transport truck,” stressed health and safety — and reiterated that they go hand in hand with profit and productivity.
“At the end of the day, happy employees, safe employees, well-rested employees are more productive. It leads to safer workplaces and leads to more prosperity as a country overall,” Hajdu said.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press