Provincial Minister of Labour Harry Bains says there will be no ministerial order – at least “not right now” – to extend the temporary layoff time limits beyond 16 weeks as there are already provisions under the Employment Standards for employers and workers to apply for extensions beyond that time.
But business organizations throughout the province say that’s not good enough as “time is of the essence,” and they are calling on him to extend the temporary layoff limits to Aug. 31 and tack on six weeks more once emergency orders are lifted, in “the interests of doing what is right for workers and employers in British Columbia.”
Bains told the Now-Leader his government is listening, “and after listening, if we need to extend, and if we’re convinced that extension is needed to protect jobs, but at the same to protect workers rights and their benefits, we will be open to that.”
“We believe the extension variance process will work well,” he said. “We are also prepared to improve that system if need be. If it’s not sufficient, we need to extend further than 16 weeks, we’re open to that because we want to make sure we support the employer and protect those jobs, at the same time the workers’ rights and benefits are also protected.”
In a joint June 22 letter to the Surrey-Newton MLA – from the Surrey Board of Trade, BC Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, BC Built.BC Strong, the Business Council of British Columbia, Retail Council of Canada, Restaurants Canada, British Columbia Hotel Association, the Tourism Industry Association of BC, the BC Trucking Association and ABLE BC For A Responsible Liquor Industry – these organizations claim Bains’ approach is “perplexing and is unacceptable.
“It also unnecessarily places at risk thousands of jobs for youth, women, and vulnerable people in our society,” they charge. “The business community is extremely disappointed with your response and, respectfully, calls upon you to immediately revisit your decision and issue an extension to the temporary layoff time limits as we have requested without delay.”
Bains said Monday the NDP government “fully” understands that the pandemic has put many workers and businesses “under significant strain,” but it has already extended the temporary layoff provisions in the Employment Standards Act to 16 weeks from 13 and employers and workers together can also apply for further extensions.
“We have a flexibility in our Employment Standards Act, compared to other jurisdictions, where if the employer feels they need a few more days, and a little more time, to extend the temporary layoff from 16 weeks even, then they can actually talk to their impacted workers and if the majority of those workers agree, they can apply to Employment Standards for the extension beyond 16 weeks. So that provision is available to them right now,” Bains told the Now-Leader.
He said the government needs to take a “balanced” approach that supports employers and protects workers’ rights as well.
“I’m encouraging them, that they should talk to each other, workers and employers, and they can actually reach out to Employment Standards if they need more time beyond 16 weeks.”
Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, says businesses across the province have been calling on Bains to act urgently in an effort to prevent more job losses and small businesses from going bankrupt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She says at issue is the spectre of bankruptcy and insolvency for thousands of small and medium sized businesses and not-for-profits being forced to pay out severance because of unforeseen circumstances brought on by the pandemic.
“Minister Bains has it within his power to provide a ministerial order to extend the temporary lay-off time limits under the Employment Standards Act to provide employers with the breathing room needed to survive, recover and facilitate return-to-work for laid-off employees,” Huberman said.
She said the Surrey Board of Trade “demands that the BC Ministry of Labour revisit their recent negative response to the business community. Take action. Extend the temporary layoff provision for at least a further 13-week period through to August 31, 2020 to provide employers with certainty during this tenuous economic recovery period.”
To this, Bains replies, “That’s what I’m saying, that the employer has that option right now under Employment Standard that they can talk to workers and get their agreement and then they can approach to the Employment Standard and get that extension.
“For example,” he said, “if an employer has 50 employees and they are bringing back say 40 of them, but the 10 of them still have to wait beyond 16 weeks that they already have, then they could go to those 10, and if the majority of those 10 agree to postpone or extend the 16 week temporary layoff they can go to Employment Standard and apply for the extension.”
There will be no ministerial order, he said. “Not right now. I’ve already spoken to Employment Standard Branch, through my ministry, and they’re ready to take those applications and are working diligently to help employers and workers and listen to those applications.”
The organizations that signed the June 22 letter, however, say Bains’ suggestion that employers apply under the ESA for a variance to extend temporary layoff time limits is a “hollow offering” and “frankly Minister, insulting to the many businesses struggling to recover or simply keep their doors open as a result of COVID-19.
“You are aware, or ought to be aware, of the substantial back logs within the Employment Standards Branch,” they told Bains. “If businesses are required to use this ‘pathway,’ it will be several weeks or months before extensions to statutory layoff provisions that are urgently required now are granted. The result will be widespread bankruptcies and insolvencies that you, as Minister of Labour, caused through your inaction.”