Recent polling suggests that the June 7th Ontario election is a hotly contested race with the NDP currently holding a lead in the polls and the PCs in second place. We are closely monitoring the election developments to keep you informed as to what a new government will mean for Ontario employers.
Below we outline the NDP’s proposed reforms to employment and labour laws. If pursued, the NDP’s proposed initiatives set out in their platform will significantly impact employers and go well beyond the changes recently introduced by the Ontario government under Bill 148.
Closing the gender pay gap
The NDP plans to update and enforce the Pay Equity Act to address the gender wage gap (although no details of the updates or enforcement measures are set out in the platform). Ontario’s Pay Equity Act has been in effect since 1988. All provincially-regulated employers except private sector employers with fewer than 10 employees are presently subject to the Act. This legislation imposes an obligation on the employer to take specific steps to ensure gender pay equity.
The NDP also plans to bring greater equity to corporate boards and to expand workplace maternity benefits, although no details of either plan have been released.
Mandatory dental benefits
Every employer would be required to provide dental benefits to workers and their families that meet a minimum standard of coverage. Employers who are not currently offering dental benefits that meet the minimum standard would either have to start offering such benefits or sign up for “Ontario Benefits” (described below).
New “Ontario Benefits” plan
Ontario Benefits is a proposed workplace benefits plan to be funded by employer and employee contributions, as is the case with Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan. The NDP plans to expand Ontario Benefits over time to include vision care, registered therapies and other workplace benefits. Individuals earning less than certain annual thresholds would have their contributions fully or partially refunded to them by the government.
Uniform $15 minimum wage
The minimum wage rate would increase to $15 per hour for all workers, including students and liquor servers. Currently, the general minimum wage rate is set to increase to $15 per hour on January 1, 2019 (as a result of Bill 148), but the minimum wage rates for specific categories of employees, such as students and liquor servers, will continue to remain below the general minimum wage rate. The NDP also proposes to index ongoing minimum wage increases to inflation, as is the case under existing legislation.
Increased vacation entitlement
Minimum vacation entitlement would increase to 3 weeks of paid vacation per year. Currently, the minimums for vacation time and vacation pay are (i) 3 weeks and 6%, respectively, for employees with a period of employment of 5 years or more (as a result of Bill 148), and (ii) 2 weeks and 4%, respectively, for employees with a period of employment of less than 5 years. Employers can expect that this change will lead employees who currently have 3 weeks of vacation to pursue a bump-up above the statutory minimum.
True independent contractors entitled to same benefits as employees
Independent contractors, including individuals who choose to be independent contractors, would be covered by employment standards laws, requiring employers to meet the same minimum obligations that they presently have for employees. Independent contractors would also have the right to access the same additional benefits, vacation and sick pay, pensions, and parental leave currently provided to employees. At present, the law extends these protections to misclassified contractors but not to true independent contractors.
While the NDP does not clarify to what extent the cost and burden of these entitlements will fall upon businesses who contract with independent contractors, such businesses can anticipate that these plans will result in increased costs.
Easier for unions to certify workplaces
The NDP plans to make it easier for workers to organize “by making sure any workplace can unionize when 55% of workers sign a union card”, in other words, doing away with the representation vote. At present, card-based certification exists for certain industries. In those industries, the Ontario Labour Relations Board may certify the union if it is satisfied that more than 55% of employees in the bargaining unit are union members. This provision applies, as a result of Bill 148, to the building services industry, the home care and community services industry and to temporary help agencies. Card-based certification also continues in effect for the construction industry.
The NDP also plans to amend first-contract arbitration legislation to prevent delays by employers, however no details of this plan were provided in the platform. Under the current labour relations regime, through amendments brought in with Bill 148, either party may seek the appointment of a mediator where the parties are unable to reach a first collective agreement and a mediator will be appointed within 7 days of an application. A mediation-arbitration is the next step if the parties do not reach a first agreement in mediation. See here for more details about the current process for first collective agreements. Eliminating the risk of a strike creates no risk union certification.
Changes to workplace safety rules, insurance
The NDP plans to require regular updates of workplace safety rules and WSIB rates and coverage. They also plan to expand coverage and definitions of occupational illnesses, and pay benefits that recognize lost wages. Employers that are required to register with the WSIB should therefore anticipate higher premium rates.
As we mentioned above, it’s still a tight race. Stay tuned for further discussion of what to expect after June 7th.
– With thanks to Ian Attema for his assistance with this article.