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In UCP math, banked overtime would add up to a pay cut

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Jason Kenney on the campaign trail in a nice non-threatening Stephen Harper sweater (Photo: Jason Kenney/Facebook).

One hour is the same as one and a half hours! Who knew?

It's always an education to listen to the way Jason Kenney and his UCP team explain things.

Yesterday, the leader of Alberta's United Conservative party was testily engaged in an epic effort to persuade Albertans that his party's plan to let employers pay out employees' banked overtime at straight time, instead of at time and a half as an NDP law now requires, isn't the same thing as a pay cut.

Skeptics argued the opposite, and accused Kenney of wanting to roll back worker compensation with his proposal.

Now, this is a story that involves math, and Kenney, it turned out, wasn't very happy about being questioned about his.

So he got on Twitter and accused the NDP of not telling the truth (he's been doing that a lot lately, which is interesting, given his own history) and went on to say: "Of course a UCP govt will keep protection for over time pay. We're simply proposing to return to the rules that prevailed for years, including under the NDP, where workers can voluntarily agree to greater flexibility on when they work."

A little later one of his supporters, a lawyer named Dwayne Chomyn who in the past has played a role in drafting Conservative employment legislation, explained in a tweet that "Someone from CUPE suggested today that the #UCP represents a 'pay cut.' (This) is not true. Any banked time is paid out at time and half. But the time in lieu is taken at 1:1, not 1:1.5. That is not a pay cut per se."

Note to readers: Always perk up your ears when you hear someone who's trying to persuade you to do something the boss wants by using a little Latin phrase like "per se."

That tweet prompted a round of hilarity, the general consensus of which appeared to be, as one Twitterist put it, "1 is less than 1.5, so ya, it's a pay cut."

Now, I'm not all that good at arithmetic myself, so I asked Bob Barnetson, a labour studies professor at Athabasca University, to unpack this mystery for me.

Right now, Dr. Barnetson explained, workers who are required to work more than eight hours in a day or 44 hours in a week must receive 1.5 times their normal pay for their overtime work.

Overtime pay, he noted, is designed to discourage employers from requiring long working hours and, instead, to encourage them to hire more workers.

But the current rules let employers and workers enter into agreements under which overtime is banked. The trouble with that, Barnetson explained, is that "employers can impose such 'agreements' at their discretion by denying workers overtime if they don't agree to the employer's terms. Banked overtime can then be taken as paid time off or as pay calculated at 1.5 times workers' normal rate of pay."

"The UCP indicates it will allow employers to pay out banked overtime hours at 'straight' time, instead of at the overtime rate," he said. "This will allow employers to evade overtime premiums by denying worker requests to use banked overtime. Instead, employers will be able to simply pay out the overtime as straight time. The result will be a significant cost savings for employers, and a significant pay reduction for workers."

With Kenney's rules, Barnetson said, a minimum-wage worker earning the current $15-per-hour rate (which Kenney, by the way, proposes to cut more than 13 per cent to $13 for young workers) for five 12-hour shifts, paying gross monthly earnings of $4,200, could see that drop to $3,600 under an imposed overtime agreement.

That would encourage employers to work existing employees harder, rather than hire additional staff, he noted. (So much for job creation!)

So by requiring an overtime agreement, refusing requests to take overtime as time off, and instead paying it out in straight time, Barnetson explained, "the de facto effect is to give employers a way to evade overtime premiums without actually having to eliminate overtime from the Employment Standards Code."

He described this as a "kind of a stealth kill."

The NDP changed the law to make employers pay all overtime at 1.5 times the employee's regular hourly rate, no matter how it's taken. "There is no rationale for allowing any overtime premium to be eliminated, regardless of how workers get it," Barnetson stated.

He concluded: "Kenney is suggesting a fundamental change -- payouts at straight time."

"The mechanics of overtime agreements are that, under Kenney's proposal, an employer can force an overtime agreement on you, refuse your request for paid time off at 1.5 times, and force you to take a payout of banked time at straight time.

"Basically he's creating a rigged overtime system that employers will use to legally evade overtime payments."

Got that? Legally. Evade. Overtime. Payments.

When life handed Kenney a lemon yesterday, he was the kind of politician who decided to make a pretzel, if you take my meaning. Note that Kenney also said yesterday that this change would align Alberta with every other province -- something it would be fair to describe as a fib.

As for that bit about how "we're simply proposing to return to the rules that prevailed for years," that sure sounds like the Jason Kenney we're coming to know and not necessarily love in Alberta.

Alert readers will recall that all Canadian women didn't have the right to vote until1960, only eight years before Kenney was born. That sure as hell doesn't mean a "return to the rules that prevailed for years" is a good idea.

I wonder what Kenney thinks about that?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Jason Kenney/Facebook

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