Employment Standards bolsters staffing to address flood of online complaints

EDMONTON - A new online system for workers to report grievances against their employers has worked so well the province has been "flooded" with complaints to investigate, Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk says.

To address the backlog, he announced Wednesday his department is hiring six new employment standards officers, bringing the total to 60 across the province.

In the 2010-11 fiscal year that ended March 31, the province received approximately 6,400 complaints — a 20 per cent jump from the previous year. The upward trend has continued.

While the government continues to receive complaints in person and by phone, Lukaszuk said the rise is entirely due to the new online system launched in December.

"The moment we introduced the new online complaint filing system. we have been, to some degree, flooded with complaints," he said.

"We anticipated there would be some increase, particularly among young workers who tend to be more proficient with technology, but I found the increase to exceed my expectations."

All reports are put through an initial review. Those found to have substance are investigated, which is why new officers are required, he said.

As a result of the complaints received in 2010-11, about $5 million in unpaid earnings was identified as owing to workers. While much of that was generated by employers who made errors interpreting employment standards, Lukaszuk said the province has decided to get tougher with those who deliberately or repeatedly flout the law.

Third-party auditors will be brought in to deal with companies that are evasive or refuse to open their books to investigators, he said. The companies will be billed for the auditors' expenses.

In addition, the province has created a new tool kit for employers to help improve awareness of employment standards, and provide help on calculating workers' pay, overtime and holidays.

"It takes away the excuse," Lukaszuk said. "Following this announcement, no employer will be able to say, 'I didn't know what to pay my employee.' "

Liberal labour critic Hugh MacDonald, who is running for party leader, called Lukaszuk's announcement a good start but said the province needs to prosecute more of the worst offenders.

Lukaszuk said there may be additional announcements, including the possibility of introducing fines for companies with poor adherence to the regulations.

Nancy Furlong of the Alberta Federation of Labour said the government needs to go further to protect workers and ensure complaints are handled in a timely manner.

"The improvements are welcome, although they have thousands of complaints, so whether six new people will be enough is hard to say."

Calgary Herald, Wed Aug 10 2011
Byline: Keith Gerein

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