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COLUMN: Ontario already has labour laws, so use them

Pandemic blurred the line between when you worked and when you didn’t, writes city hall reporter
2021-12-05 Monte McNaugthton crop JO
Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton speaks during an event at the Blue Mountain Village Conference Centre.

I’m of two minds about the Working for Workers Act, passed last week by the Ontario government.

OK, three minds  as Premier Doug Ford really needs to find better, less-bland names for his legislation. (Roughly translated, this one means ‘Look how we, the province, are working for you, the workers, and please vote for us next June’.)

The Act’s intention is to help employees disconnect from the office in these days of working from home, to create a better work-life balance. It requires Ontario businesses with 25 or more workers to have a written policy about employees’ rights when it comes to disconnecting from their job at the end of the day.

Such things as expectations about response time for e-mails and encouraging employees to turn on their out-of-office notifications when they aren’t working, the government has said.

“We are determined to rebalance the scales and put workers in the driver’s seat of Ontario’s economic growth while attracting the best workers to our great province,” were the very words from Monte McNaughton, minister of labour, training and skills development.

Monte’s inference is that since mid-March 2020, when COVID-19 became too real to ignore anymore and many people began working from home, the line got very blurred between when you worked and when you didn’t.

Do you need to answer messages after you’ve already worked your hours? Or can they wait until the next day?

If you leave home for some errands during the day, do you tack that time onto your day, work until 6 p.m. instead of 5 p.m.?

Or must you simply work until that day’s work is done, whether that be six or eight hours?

The Working for Workers Act also infers that bosses sometimes take advantage of their employees. It used to be that when you worked at the office, that was generally where and when you worked  and management had to respect that, to a certain degree.

Now some employers think homes are offices and workers are on call at all times.

The flip side is that some employees undoubtedly take advantage of their lack of supervision to work less than they should, less than they’re being paid for.

An editor of mine used to call it “stealing time” (not in reference to me, of course).

Speaking of me, I’m not sure the new legislation will have much effect on my work-life balance.

News reporters understand they don’t have set hours, can’t have set hours, because news happens when news happens.

Now this doesn’t mean we get sent to fender-benders at 2 a.m., or smoke but no fire in a home’s hallway first thing in the morning.

Or get asked to rewrite a press release from one or another level of government congratulating itself for giving us back some of our own money, after a long day of writing real news.

But I cover Barrie city council and don’t count my hours on Mondays, when those marathon meetings sometimes take place. It’s just part of the job. I do count my planning committee hours on Tuesdays, however.

On the other hand, it’s not like employees in this province don’t have rights and the ability to get what they deserve.

I recall one boss, a long time ago, who suggested the company was too short-staffed to properly compensate me with time off for working a statutory holiday.

So I suggested we call the labour ministry and see where it stood on the matter. I got my time off without picking up the phone.

It’s not that I’m a labour hawk, however; I haven’t been in a union since I was 19, which was a very long time ago.

It’s just that I’m not sure the Working for Workers Act (2021) is necessary, given all the labour protections we had in place before it passed.

We all need to disconnect from work, of course, just get away from whatever it is we do for a living and do something else for a day or a weekend.

Not sure we really need any legislated help from the province to do this.

Bob Bruton is a staff reporter at BarrieToday covering city hall.