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Chef and restaurateur Michael Noble oversees staff working in the kitchen of his restaurant, The Nash, in Calgary on Dec. 14. Mr. Noble says it is becoming increasingly difficult to run his businesses as the province seeks to entrench new employment standards.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Small-business advocates in Alberta are raising concerns about new provincial employment standards that take effect on Jan. 1, rules they say will bring added costs and regulatory burdens to businesses.

Proposed changes to Alberta's Employment Standards Code were passed in the province's legislature in June, following a five-week consultation period earlier in the year. Bill 17: The Fair and Family-friendly Workplace Act, also includes a new Labour Relations Code.

With Alberta's economy slowly recovering from a slide in oil prices that pushed the province into a recession in 2014, small-business advocates question why the rules are being imposed now. But the NDP government touts the labour legislation changes as "long overdue," following nearly three decades without a significant update.

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"We absolutely recognize that employers, and indeed all Albertans, are facing tough economic times. Through the feedback we received, we developed modern and fair rules for workplaces that balance the needs of both employers and employees," said Christina Gray, Alberta Labour Minister, in an e-mail.

Alberta's workplaces have changed a lot in the past 30 years, and we need to ensure our laws are kept up-to-date with today's modern workplaces."

The Employment Standards Code addresses minimum standards in a variety of areas, including overtime pay, job-protected leaves, compressed work weeks, youth employment and holiday pay.

Michael Noble, chef and proprietor of popular Calgary restaurants NOtaBle and The Nash, anticipates the updated measures for Alberta's nine statutory holidays will be costly.

Mr. Noble employs about 140 people at his two restaurants, which have always been closed on Mondays. Under the old rules, his employees were not entitled to general holiday pay or an extra day off when statutory holidays fell on Mondays, a day they never worked.

Now, a distinction between "regular" and "non-regular" days of work will be eliminated, meaning employees who don't work on the holiday will be entitled to their average daily wage, regardless of the day of the week the holiday falls on. Mr. Noble expects that change will cost him between $40,000 and $50,000 in 2018.

Mr. Noble, whose career in restaurants has spanned 38 years, said it's becoming harder and harder to run a viable business. "In a business where profit percentages are so small anyway, even if you do everything right, to have this continual chipping away at profit is just really hard to keep managing that," he said.

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Zoe Addington, director of policy and government relations at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said the updated employment code will affect every local business, increasing employer costs directly and adding administrative burdens.

An increase to the current rate at which overtime hours are banked, for example, could discourage the establishment of a program for banking time, leading to less flexibility for employees, the Chamber says.

Despite the far-reaching effects, Ms. Addington worries some small-business owners may not even be aware of the upcoming changes. "Given the short time frame that it came in, people are surprised that it's now happening," she said.

The Chamber unsuccessfully asked for the five-week consultation period to be extended.

Ms. Gray, the Labour Minister, said in addition to those consultations, the changes are based on "several previous reviews, the best practices of other Canadian jurisdictions and our platform commitment to Albertans to implement more family-friendly standards for Alberta's workplaces."

Employees at small businesses will benefit from workplaces that protect vulnerable Albertans, Ms. Gray said, pointing to new rules that will allow parents of ill or injured children to take time off to care for family without fear of losing their job.

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"We are strengthening our enforcement tools to ensure all employers follow the law and Albertans receive the pay and benefits they're rightfully entitled to," she said.

The new measures follow the provincial government's minimum-wage increase in October, 2017, from $12.20 to $13.60. Chef Mr. Noble expects that increase will cost his business between $50,000 and $60,000 extra in payroll until October, 2018, when minimum wage rises to $15, adding even further costs.

"It's difficult for me as a small-business owner to keep taking a hit like this," Mr. Noble said. "All of these increases, we can't really hand back to the consumer in the form of menu pricing, because we run the risk of completely killing our businesses."

Ms. Addington said new costs are being "piled on" from every level of government, at a time when businesses can ill afford it. The cumulative costs are taking a toll.

Ken Kobly, president and chief executive of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, worries that small businesses have not been given all the information they need to comply with the new employment standards. Detailed regulations – to help businesses understand the changes – were released on Dec. 6, less than a month before the changes take effect.

Mr. Kobly also shares Ms. Addington's concern that small businesses are facing pressure from numerous levels of government.

"These changes to legislation are framed in a way that suggests this is just a small change, or, 'How can you not support changes such as this?'" Mr. Kobly said. "But when you start lumping changes on top of changes on top of changes … there comes a point in time where small businesses simply can't survive."

As small-business owners struggle to adjust to all the new costs, Mr. Kobly feels the human faces behind businesses are being forgotten. "I find it very sad that we've degraded into this rhetoric where if you can't handle this, you're basically just greedy, or you have a bad business model," he said.

Two Hot Peppers is a Mississauga-based business that makes artificial food for home decorators, trade shows and more. All of it is made out of the owner’s basement.
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