Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act reintroduced

In March, Ceaser Work Counsel reported on the second reading of the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2013.  The legislation died on the order paper when the provincial election was called, but on July 16, 2014, the Liberal government reintroduced the bill (former Bill 146).  Here's a summary of the key amendments that (current) Bill 18 would make:

Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014 (Bill 18)

The Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014 (Bill 18) would make substantial changes to a number of employment-related statutes.

·         The Act extends protection to live-in caregivers under the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act.
·         It extends the definition of “worker” under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) to include those who perform work for no pay, such as ‘unpaid interns’.  All of the protections afforded by the OHSA, including the right to refuse unsafe work, now apply to unpaid workers.

·         The Act reduces the “open period” under the Labour Relations Act, permitting decertification applications or union “raids” to occur within only the final two (2) months of construction industry collective agreements (instead of the current 3- month window). 

·         The Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (the “WSIA”) would be amended to attribute the costs of workplace injuries to temporary agency workers to the “client” employer, rather than the agency.  Lost wages for temporary agency workers would be assessed on the basis of their income earned from the agency.

Most significant, however, are the changes the legislation would make to the Employment Standards Act (the ESA”). 

First, it would extend the time limit for recovery of unpaid wages to two (2) years, instead of the current 6-month limit.  The cap on recovery of wages of $10,000 would be eliminated, meaning that employers could be liable to the full amount of unpaid wages over a 2-year period.

Second, the amendments would create new responsibilities for temporary help agencies and the employers who utilize their services.  Agencies will now be responsible for tracking and maintaining records of all hours worked by agency workers for a period of three (3) years.  More importantly, the revisions to the ESA introduce “joint and several liability” for both the agency and the client employer with respect to the payment of wages.  This means that if the agency does not satisfy a claim for wages filed by a temporary worker, the client employer may be held responsible for any shortfall.

Third, the ESA is amended to create informational obligations for employers and the concept of the “self-audit”.  Employers would be required to provide all employees with a poster prepared by the Ministry of Labour setting out employee entitlements under the Act.  Employment Standards Officers (“ESOs”) are also now empowered to order an employer to conduct a self-audit of its records in order to determine whether it is compliant with the Act, and to provide the ESO with a report of its findings.  In its self-audit report, the employer must explain how it has determined that it is in compliance.

It should be observed that the amendments appear to focus on two vulnerable groups of workers:  temporary agency workers (so-called “temps”) and unpaid interns.  With respect to the former group, employers who rely on contingent labour will want to carefully review their contracts with the help agencies to ensure that the obligation to pay wages or other costs of the placement remain the responsibility of the agency.  Provisions that address responsibility for taxes and other statutory amounts will need to be reviewed and revised to ensure that the agency can be charged back for any amounts found due and owing by regulatory bodies, including any WSIB claims costs that are attributed to the “client” employer under the amendments to the WSIA.

By adding unpaid workers to the definition of “worker” in the OHSA, it appears that the Government is responding (at least in part) to claims that unpaid interns are becoming much more common and are prone to exploitation.  It may also be that the new “self-audit” mechanism in the ESA is intended to provide another enforcement tool to address those employers who inappropriately utilize unpaid interns, although the Government has not expressly called out this intention.

Do you have questions about Ontario's labour and employment statutes?  Have concerns about compliance?  Contact Lance Ceaser for assistance.


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