The federal budget tabled in the House of Commons on March 22, 2017, contains a number of measures that will be of particular interest to employers, especially those in federally-regulated sectors.
Here is a summary of the budget highlights from a labour and employment perspective:
Changes to the Employment Insurance Act
- Expanded EI caregiver benefit – the government proposes to create a new EI caregiving benefit of up to 15 weeks. The new benefit will cover a broader range of situations than are currently covered, including circumstances where individuals are providing care to an adult family member who requires significant support in order to recover from critical illness or injury. The current benefits are only available where a loved one is gravely ill and at significant risk of death, or where a child is critically ill or injured. The proposed changes would only apply to those caring for an adult family member, and would not change the current benefit in respect of a child who is critically ill or injured.
- EI parental benefits to be made more flexible – the proposed changes will allow parents to choose to either: (i) receive EI parental benefits over an extended period of up to 18 months, at a lower rate (33%) of average weekly earnings, or (ii) receive EI benefits at the current rate of 55% over a period of 12 months.
- EI maternity benefits can be claimed earlier – women will be allowed to claim EI maternity benefits up to 12 weeks before their due date (expanded from the current 8 weeks) if they so choose.
- Other proposed amendments – the government also proposes other amendments to the EI Act that are designed to allow more Canadians to access EI-funded skills training and employment supports. The Budget also indicates that the government intends to make better use of existing flexibilities within the EI program that allow claimants to pursue self-funded training while maintaining their EI status.
- EI Premium increase – to partly offset the cost of some of these changes, EI premiums will increase from $1.63 per $100 to $1.68 per $100 by next year.
Proposed amendments to the Canada Labour Code
- Flexible work arrangements – the federal government proposes to amend the Canada Labour Code (the “Code“) to give federally regulated employees the right to request more flexible work arrangements. The examples cited include the ability to request flexible start and finish times and the ability to work from home.
- New unpaid leave provisions – the government also proposes to introduce new unpaid leaves to help workers manage family responsibilities, to allow them to participate in traditional indigenous practices, and to seek care if they are victims of family violence. Changes will also make bereavement leave more flexible.
- Enhanced compliance and enforcement – the government will increase the funding provided to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) in order to strengthen compliance and enforcement mechanisms under the Code, to ensure that Canadians can more easily recover wages owing to them by their employer, and that employers who repeatedly violate the Code will be punished.
- Limits on unpaid internships in federally regulated sectors – the government proposes to eliminate unpaid internships in federally regulated sectors where the internships are not part of a formal educational program. Where unpaid interns are part of an educational program, changes will be made to ensure that they are entitled to labour standards protections, such as maximum hours of works, weekly days of rest and general holidays.
The Budget includes a number of other references to upcoming developments that may also be of interest to employers. They include:
- In the coming year, the federal government will “explore options to improve work opportunities and employment outcomes for persons with disabilities”, including the development of new federal accessibility legislation.
- The federal government will be making increased investments in Labour Market Transfer Agreements with the provinces and territories, to enhance funding available for such things as skills training, career counselling and job search assistance.
- An Expert Panel on Youth Employment that was created in 2016 is expected to deliver its Final Report this spring. The Panel’s recommendations will help inform future decisions on how best to help young Canadians succeed in the labour market.
It is important to note that none of the proposed measures will take effect immediately, but must await the introduction and passage of legislation. In addition, it should be noted that while the proposed changes to the Employment Insurance Act would alter the period of time within which Employment Insurance benefits would be available to employees, they will not alter the periods of job-protected leave. For federally-regulated employers, the budget indicates that the federal government will make the necessary amendments to the Canada Labour Code to ensure that workers in the federally-regulated sector have job protection while they are receiving caregiving, parental or maternity leave EI benefits. However, for provincially-regulated employees, nothing will change in terms of job protection unless amendments are made to the applicable labour standards legislation. In Ontario, the Changing Workplaces Review is currently underway. The special advisors appointed by the Minister of Labour are expected to deliver their final report soon. It may well be that, in preparing their final report and recommendations, they will take account of these recent federal initiatives.