An increasing number of workplace complaints has prompted the provincial government to hire more people to investigate employers across the province, a step that can only help Lethbridge workers, according to the president of the Lethbridge and District Labour Council.
Richard Merrick said the council, which works with local unions, fields at least one complaint daily about employers who are not following Alberta's Employment Standards Code, usually by withholding vacation or overtime pay.
"For too long, employees have had the cards stacked against them, even locally with students (who find) a lot of employers aren't paying holiday pay," he said. "It's really hard for them to get any kind of justice. The Employment Standards (Code) is unfair to a lot of employees."
Alberta's department of Employment and Immigration announced Wednesday it will put more time and effort into resolving a climbing number of workplace complaints. The department plans to hire six new employment standards officers and bring in independent auditors to investigate payroll records in addition to government auditors already swamped with cases. It also plans to offer more training on how to use the employment standards legislation and has put out a guide for employers.
Merrick said the efforts will make a difference to Lethbridge's workforce.
"Locally, it's going to help the employees and that in turn helps employers because it makes a more level playing field and helps to improve the relationship between the parties," he said. "We have plenty of grievances with employers where there's a union group, so that suggests to me that there's lots of problems here locally about how employees are treated."
More Albertans are making formal complaints about their employers, a fact the province attributes partly to its online complaints system, introduced in December 2010, which allows employees to submit complaints 24 hours a day over the web. Nearly 20 per cent more complaints were lodged in 2010-11 compared to the previous year, rising from 5,454 complaints to 6,484.
Jay Fisher, a spokesperson for the department, said the government has also tried to educate people about their rights as employees with a "Tell Your Employer Where to Go" information ad campaign, displayed in every Alberta city including Lethbridge.
"Those campaigns are also helping increase the number of complaints because people are more aware of employment standards," he said.
To keep up, the government is bringing in third-party auditors who will join government auditors in investigating complaints, with the expenses billed back to the employers.
"They're experts at it and can do those sorts of things quite quickly and our guys are spending their time on the complaints and the investigations, following them up as opposed to poring through some payroll records to see who's owed how much in overtime," Fisher said.
Although the Alberta Federation of Labour lauds the government for trying to enforce the employment standards, it scoffs at the notion that the province is doing enough to make people aware of the regulations and of their rights.
"Having six new people helping to enforce labour standards is a good thing. It's a drop in the bucket and it's the wrong focus, but it is a good thing," said Nancy Furlong, the Federation's secretary/treasurer. "The focus should be on education. Somehow we have to find a way to make sure that workers and employers know what the rules are."
Furlong said her organization gets dozens of calls a week from residents inquiring about their rights as employees.
"That's the bigger issue as far as I'm concerned," she said. "There are lots of people who a) have no idea what their rights are and b) they're afraid to challenge their employers anyway, because although they are protected under the code, it's not an easy thing to take a chance on losing your job to enforce your right to overtime or your right to hours of work."
Lethbridge Herald, Thurs Aug 11 2011
Byline: Katie May