Lou Arab | CUPE Communications

The first major overhaul to Alberta labour laws in three decades has made it easier to form a union, and provides a range of new workplace rights to non-union employees.

It’s the third time the Notley government has improved the life of Alberta workers since the last election. The Alberta NDP brought agricultural workers under the protection of workplace laws in 2015, and the province is in the midst of raising the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2018.

The latest update to Alberta labour law comes in the form of the Fair and Family Friendly Workplace Act, passed on June 6th. The legislation changes employment standards rules to allow workers to take time off work without pay for illness, to take care of critically ill children, to mourn the death of a family member, or to flee domestic violence.

Amanda Jensen of Lethbridge was fired from her job when she took leave to care for her son, Jake, after he developed leukemia. “Three weeks after we were released from the hospital and came back to Lethbridge, I received an email from my employer terminating my position,” said Jensen. “I made a call to Employment Standards and was quite incredulous to learn that I would be offered no protection.”

“A thousand thoughts went through my head about supporting my family financially,” said Jensen. “I knew then that I wasn’t going to be able to just focus on Jake’s recovery, and on his life-saving treatments. I knew that part of my mind and energies would now be directed elsewhere.”

Other changes to employment standards include the elimination of rules allowing employers to pay less than minimum wage to disabled workers, extended maternity and parental leave, and better provisions for overtime, vacations and holidays. Most of the changes brought Alberta up to standards long ago adopted by other provinces.

The legislation also made changes to the Labour Relations Code, which sets rules governing how workers join unions, and how collective agreements are managed once they do. Workers trying to form a union can now avoid a disruptive vote if 65 per cent of the employees in a unit sign union cards or a petition asking to form a union. When votes do occur, loopholes have been closed so employers can no longer push a vote beyond the first week after the application is made.

Unionized employees trying to get a first contract with an employer (often the hardest deal to negotiate) now have the option to apply for an imposed contract, allowing a period of stability for the union to take hold.