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Talent Many Ontario employers will stick with Liberal labour reforms, despite Doug Ford’s promised reversal

Ontario employers are keen to see Premier Doug Ford scrap the previous government’s Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, but many still plan to stick with the act’s provisions to keep workers happy. While certain aspects of the act (also known as Bill 148) have driven up costs, business owners are concerned about retaining and attracting workers in the current tight labour market.

“It will be a very tough sell to take back benefits,” even if the law changes, says Geoff Wilson, principal at fsSTRATEGY Inc., a consulting firm for the hospitality industry. “I think there will be some who will consider it, but there are consequences."

Mr. Ford’s new Progressive Conservative government has vowed to freeze the minimum wage at $14 an hour and recently committed to reviewing the legislation to see what other changes should be made.

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to supporters at Ford Fest in Vaughan, Ont., on Sept. 22, 2018.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Advocates of the act say it expands and protects workers’ rights, but business owners have complained about the higher labour costs not only because of the minimum-wage increase to $14 from $11.60 as of last Jan. 1 – and the hike to $15 set for next year – but also the additional staff needed to cover for employees in other scenarios. For example, the act allows employees to take up to 10 personal emergency leave days a year, two of them paid, and increases vacation entitlements by a week to three weeks for workers with the company for at least five years.

Businesses are worried about potential backlash from reducing benefits, which happened to some when the act took effect earlier this year. Many recall the high-profile example of Tim Hortons, which was the target of protests after some Ontario franchisees eliminated paid breaks, fully covered health and dental plans and other perks for their workers to help offset the minimum-wage hike.

“For the integrity of a great employer-employee relationship, I think operators are going to think twice about rolling anything back,” Mr. Wilson says.

While he says some employers may have to drop some benefits if it’s the difference between staying open and shutting down, Mr. Wilson recommends companies work with employees on what areas to trim. He says employers need to focus on keeping employees happy and figuring out ways to provide better service and value to consumers to help expand the business.

Andrew Violi, president of Mellow Walk Footwear, a Toronto-based footwear manufacturer, says his labour costs soared under Bill 148, but he doesn’t believe it would be fair to workers if the new benefits were pulled.

If the legislation is withdrawn, Mr. Violi says his company would analyze which benefits he could keep in order to help retain staff. “Finding new workers has become significantly more challenging in the Greater Toronto Area this year,” he says. “Regardless of what transpires with Bill 148, wages may continue to rise as Ontario businesses compete for employees."

Shelley Clair, the owner of Orr Cleaners in London, Ont., says she would still consider wage increases for good employees, but not by much. “The business just can't afford it, and I don't want to raise prices again for another year. I got a lot of backlash [from consumers] over the increase,” she says.

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Ms. Clair says she would eliminate the personal-emergency days, which have become a burden on her business. Recently, four people called in on the same day to say they wouldn’t be coming to work, which meant Ms. Clair had to cover their shifts. She paid for her daughter to take the train from Toronto to London to help.

“Being a small business, and a dry cleaner, I don’t have extra people who I can just call upon to come in and press a hundred pair of pants, or a silk blouse, or operate a dry-cleaning machine,” Ms. Clair says.

Ms. Clair isn’t sure if she would stop providing three weeks of vacation for employees with more than five years on the job. “I might give them a raise and reduce the vacation pay at the same time,” she says.

She is concerned about upsetting employees if she reverses some benefits, but says her core staff have been supportive of the recent changes. “They actually offered to reduce their hours and came up with things they thought redundant to help [offset the costs] of the increase back in January,” she says.

Steve Long, president of Long and McQuade Musical Instruments and Yorkville Sound, says for years his company provided some similar benefits offered in Bill 148, including higher wages and paid days for personal emergencies.

“We were flexible if people had issues and were happy to give them time off as needed,” he says.

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He believes the bill is needlessly complicated and welcomes the chance for it to be revised, even if some of the changes stick.

“I think the bill was not very well written and ended up with many strange outcomes,” Mr. Long says. “Most employers want to be fair and treat their employees well. If you do not treat people well, they will leave. I think that going through the bill section-by-section could probably make the situation better for employees and employers.”

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