Unions push back after WestJet asks Ottawa for exemptions to new federal labour code provisions

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WestJet argued in a letter Aug. 14 to the federal government that some of the proposed changes will be “operationally unattainable” for some of its workers, including pilots, ground maintenance crews, and flight attendants.

By Brennan Doherty, Star Calgary, Sat., Aug. 31, 2019

CALGARY—Unions representing WestJet’s workers are pushing back against attempts by the Calgary-based airline to exempt some of its workforce from new federal labour code changes — but Ottawa may grant them anyway.

Long-awaited updates to the Canada Labour Code click in Sept. 1, affecting about 900,000 workers — or 6 per cent of all Canadian workers — employed in a variety of federally regulated sectors. These include airlines, railways, banks, broadcasting, grain elevators, and uranium mining. But the government already intends to grant a reprieve on new hours of work provisions for certain always-on sectors, like transportation.

“We recognize that not all workplaces are the same and that some may face challenges with updates to the Canada Labour Code,” read a statement from Employment and Social Development Canada.

WestJet argued in a letter Aug. 14 to the federal government that some of the proposed changes will be “operationally unattainable” for some of its workers, including pilots, ground maintenance crews, and flight attendants. These include the requirement to give at least 24 hours’ written notice before a shift change, the right for workers to refuse overtime in order to carry out family responsibilities, and the entitlement to an unpaid 30-minute break for every five hours of work.

Employment and Social Development Canada said it is working on a list of employee groups to be covered by the exemptions. A spokesperson for the agency did not explicitly say whether WestJet would receive an exemption when asked by Star Calgary. Followup questions were not answered by press time.

Bills C-63 and C-86, which govern the new changes, were given royal assent in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Yet Employment and Social Development Canada said it began consulting with employers and worker representatives in May to gather opinions on anything in the new legislation that the government should consider when drafting regulations on hours of work for certain types of employees.

WestJet claimed it consulted unions representing its workers on “extensive alternate rules” to the labour code changes in its Aug. 14 letter. Employment and Social Development Canada said it had been consulting with employees and workers since May. But union representatives denied that.

Chris Rauenbusch, president of CUPE 4070 — representing WestJet’s cabin crews — acknowledged a flight attendant’s duties may not allow for exact adherence to the new labour code rules. Airlines do not run like a traditional 9-to-5 office. Yet he took issue with WestJet’s request for a blanket exemption for certain workers, rather than trying to figure out a solution.

“Just simply because our work environment is different, doesn’t mean that there needs to be a blanket exemption,” he said. “There’s creative ways to work around some of these (issues).”

By way of example, Rauenbusch said it wouldn’t be impractical for several flight attendants to spell each other off on flights every five hours. Justin Jones, WestJet chairperson for the Canadian Airline Dispatch Association, said flight dispatchers typically work a 12-hour shift, but are encouraged by the company to take informal breaks — even just a walk around the parking lot — whenever possible.

“It’s very tough to implement them in the type of environment that we work at. There’s no arguing that,” Jones said. “However, nobody likes getting side-swiped with finding out this information second-hand without the company engaging with us.”

In response, CUPE 4070 said it “emphatically rejects the idea of blanket regulatory exemptions” in a draft letter to the federal government obtained by Star Calgary. It proposed allowing exemptions if workers and employers jointly agree in a collective agreement.

If negotiations aren’t finished — as they aren’t for CUPE 4070, which is still working on a first collective agreement for its 4,000 members — the union said it would be OK with a temporary exemption until bargaining is finished.Get more of today’s top stories in your inboxStart your morning with everything that matters in Calgary with our Morning Headlines newsletter.Sign Up Now

It also proposed exemptions to the Canada Labour Code changes not be made permanent. Instead, the union wrote, they should be subject to a review period every three years to ensure workers are being protected at a level comparable to the code itself.

Employment and Social Development Canada said it’ll hold more consultations on proposed exemptions or modifications to hours of work regulations in the fall after the federal election. The interim rules will apply until the federal government puts in regulations allowing modification or exemptions to some hour of work provisions, expected to take place in 2020.

Brennan Doherty is a work and wealth reporter with Star Calgary.