Budget includes right to request flexible work, changes to internship rules

Among the changes announced in Wednesday’s budget that affect employers is a plan to revamp the rules around unpaid internships and introduce a right to request flexible work.

In its budget, the federal government announced it would give federally regulated workers the right to request flexible work arrangements, such as working from home or adjusting their workday, from their employers. Workers will have the opportunity to take unpaid leaves for family responsibilities, participate in traditional indigenous practices and seek care if they’re victims of family violence, according to the budget. Bereavement leave will also be more flexible.

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The right to request flexible work arrangements is a bit of “an odd duck proposal,” says Andrew Langille, co-ordinating staff lawyer at Toronto East Employment Law Services. “It only speaks to the right . . .. So an employee would be allowed to make a representation, but the employer doesn’t have to take them up on it. So there’s no obligation on the part of the employer to implement anything, so it looks to be a paper right.”

As part of the budget, the government also announced it would limit unpaid internships and eliminate those that aren’t part of a formal education program. Unpaid interns will be entitled to labour protections such as maximum hours of work, weekly days of rest and general holidays, according to the budget.

“I think that’s a substantive step on the issue for young workers,” says Langille, noting it looks promising that academic internships are on the verge of regulation.

But while the government’s proposals around Canada’s labour laws are theoretically positive for employees, they’re vague on details, says Daniel Chodos, a partner at Whitten & Lublin in Toronto. “They kind of leave us with more questions than answers.”

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For instance, companies will have many factors to consider when faced with requests for flexible work, says Chodos. “Every company has to look at whether the request is giving them undue hardship, and it’s not clear whether the company will allow it.”

The changes also affect only a small population of employees, adds Chodos, noting that most employees fall under provincial laws. According to the Government of Canada’s website, only about six per cent of Canadians work in federally regulated sectors.

While the budget revealed some interesting tweaks to Canada’s labour laws, they’re not “particularly mind blowing,” says Langille. As part of the budget, for example, the federal government said it would invest $13 million over five years, commencing in 2017/18, “to strengthen compliance and enforcement mechanisms.”

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The funds will likely boost the number of proactive labour investigations, says Langille. “I would think the majority of the money would go towards hiring more staff in the labour program to do proactive investigations and compliance work because it’s very time consuming. Often, you have to send someone to the actual organization to look at the actual documentation or to speak with management and the workers.”