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Ontario companies worried about upcoming changes requiring equal pay for part-time employees

Massi Abdollahian sits outside Seneca College in Toronto. Ms. Abdollahian has been working part-time as a library technician at the college for 16 years and currently makes $18.25 an hour, while full-time, permanent staff about $35 an hour in similar roles.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Companies across Ontario are readying for new rules that require them to pay casual, part-time, temporary and seasonal staff the same as full-time, permanent employees – but both employers and labour advocates are concerned that the regulations are too broad and are causing confusion.

While the changes benefit employees who do the same work as their full-time colleagues, business owners worry about the increase in labour costs and administration that comes with the changes taking effect April 1, alongside other rising expenses.

"This will no doubt be an immediate challenge for employers," says Craig Stehr, a labour and employment lawyer and partner at Gowling WLG's Ottawa office who advises employers. And while the legislation appears aimed partly at temporary staffing agencies, Mr. Stehr, who advises employers, says "the consequences will ripple through all sectors of the economy in Ontario."

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Another concern is that pieces of the legislation will be open to interpretation, which could lead to disputes. "Employers have been left to sort this out on their own," Mr. Stehr says.

The new rules, as part of Bill 148, make it mandatory for employers in Ontario to pay casual, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees doing "substantially the same work" the same as full-time, permanent staff. The province says it will be the first jurisdiction in North America to make it law as part of its Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act the same legislation behind Ontario's recent minimum-wage hikes. Experts say the equal pay, equal work changes aim to crack down on so-called "perma-temping," where workers are provided repeat contracts at lower pay with no benefits or job security. The act is a key plank in Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynn's re-election strategy; Progressive Conservative rival Doug Ford has said he will freeze the minimum wage but hasn't yet weighed in on the labour law reforms.

Under the new rules, part-time and casual workers, including those working for temporary staffing agencies, will have the right to ask their employer to review their rate of pay compared with full-time, permanent staff. Employers will have to respond "by either adjusting the employee's pay or giving the employee a written explanation," the law states. There are exceptions to the new rules, including if the wage difference is based on a seniority or merit system or based on quantity or quality of production. "Sex and employment status will not qualify as an exception," the law states.

Julie Kwiecinski, director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says many business owners are confused by the changes, including what "substantially the same work" means and how the exceptions are applied.

"The government has failed to effectively communicate the equal-pay provisions and what they will mean to businesses," Ms. Kwiecinski says. "In practice, they could mean higher legal bills and more red tape for employers as they grapple with many grey areas and administrative requirements."

Ray Gonder, executive vice-president of the Staffing Edge, a support agency that handles issues such as legal and compliance matters for temp agencies across Canada, says his industry supports equal pay for equal work.

However, he says it's rare for temporary staff to work at the same job for more than six to eight months, which means the full-time worker's tenure will always be greater.

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Mr. Gonder says the new rules will be particularly challenging for small businesses with fewer resources and broader job descriptions. "When you have 10 employees that do 10 different things, there's no easy way to do a comparison," he says.

Employment consultants such as Mr. Gonder are advising employers with part-time and casual workers to develop detailed job descriptions and put in place formal policies that will set out clear seniority, merit and productivity systems, to ensure they are abiding by the new law.

Deena Ladd, co-ordinator at the Workers' Action Centre in Toronto, also believes the legislation is too broad and worries employers will find ways to use the exceptions to their advantage. "We are concerned that corporations aren't going to take this seriously and are going to use loopholes to avoid their responsibilities," Ms. Ladd says.

She's also concerned the law relies on workers to make complaints to get equal pay, which could put them at risk of losing their position. "An individual worker shouldn't have to jeopardize their job," Ms. Ladd says.

Masoumeh (Massi) Abdollahian has been working part-time as a library technician at Seneca College for 16 years and currently makes $18.25 an hour, while full-time, permanent staff make about $35 an hour in similar roles.

"I do almost the same job," says Ms. Abdollahian, who works about 24 hours a week without paid breaks or benefits. The duties are slightly different because she works in the evenings, but says she has the same qualifications as her full-time peers.

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Tracy MacMaster, Ms. Adbollahian's union representative and a full-time library technician at Seneca, believes her part-time colleagues will be entitled to the full $35 when the new law kicks in. However, that doesn't mean they'll be paid it right away.

Ms. MacMaster expects there will be some negotiating, especially since their union – the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) – is in the midst of collective bargaining. "There's been no discussion with the employer yet, but knowing the two jobs intimately, I certainly believe the pay would be appropriate," Ms. MacMaster says.

About 10 per cent of the 66,000 public service workers in Ontario are seasonal or fixed-term employees, according to the Treasury Board Secretariat. In an e-mail to The Globe, the department said the employment terms and conditions for the majority of those workers are covered by collective agreements "that already meet – and in many cases exceed – the provisions in the Employment Standards Act (ESA)."

The department added that the government "is currently monitoring potential impacts of equal pay for equal work but does not anticipate changes to the overall makeup of its work force as a result of the new legislation."

A Ministry of Labour spokesperson said the ESA doesn't apply to independent contractors. "However, the fact that a person is called an independent contractor does not determine whether or not they have rights under the ESA," the spokesperson said in an e-mail. "An employment standards officer would look at all of the facts and make a decision about whether or not the person is an 'employee' under the ESA." They said the act prohibits employers from misclassifying employees as "independent contractors."

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