Employment and Social Development Canada recently released a Discussion Paper on Flexible Work Arrangements, signaling potential changes to the Canada Labour Code (“Code”). The Discussion Paper follows on the federal government’s November 2015 mandate to the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour to amend the Code in order to allow workers in federally regulated sectors to formally request flexible work arrangements from their employers. Employers would then be obliged to respond to such requests, and could only deny requests on “reasonable business grounds”. Changes to the Code would affect some 880,000 employees working for over 11,450 employers in federally regulated industries. A second aspect of the Minister’s mandate is to consult with the provinces in order to ensure these changes are implemented within provincial labour standards legislation.

Flexible work arrangements involve a variety of alternatives to the traditional working week, including flexibility of work schedules, number of hours, work locations, telecommuting and leaves from employment. Some of these measures are already in place in various provincial employment legislation; for example, British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act provides employers and employees with the option to utilize split shifts and average an employee’s hours of work over a number of weeks; employers already have to consider flexibility and accommodation in matters involving human rights considerations.

According to the Discussion Paper, the proposed legislative changes are designed to benefit both employees and employers by promoting work-life balance, reduced workplace stress and health-related symptoms, reduced absenteeism, overtime and turnover costs, and increased recruitment, job satisfaction and morale, productivity and retention. The proposed changes are stated in the Discussion Paper to be, in part, a response to “millennials” and their different expectations from the workplace, and according to employers’ existing obligations to accommodate employees based on the grounds protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act (and parallel provincial legislation).

The Discussion Paper’s goal is to generate stakeholder involvement in the policy development process in several key areas, including:

  • what types of flexible work arrangements are the most effective;
  • what process should be used by employees and employers to make and respond to flexible work arrangement requests;
  • what recourse should be available if a request is inadequately considered;
  • how flexible work arrangements should be implemented; and
  • what compliance and enforcement tools can best ensure that flexible work arrangements are effectively implemented.

It is unclear at this point what the ultimate legislative changes to the Code may be to implement a right to request flexible work arrangements. Employers have the opportunity to weigh in and provide feedback as the government considers its options until June 30. Please refer to the Discussion Paper for details on how to submit your comments online, via email or mail.

As employers must balance their legal obligations to accommodate employees for religious, family, medical and other reasons, and the practical demands of “millennials”, who have different expectations of the work-life balance, implementing a legislative process to consider flexible work alternatives for all employees, while preserving the employer’s right to reject these requests for valid business purposes, provides an interesting opportunity for our employment standards to develop alongside the evolving nature of the workforce.

If this is something you think may affect your workplace – negatively or positively – now is your chance to provide feedback. We’ll be sure to keep you updated on developments.