Employment standards altered for high-tech professionals

Changes to government regulations for the high-tech industry will give companies more workplace flexibility and allow them to compete more effectively in the international marketplace, according to British Columbia’s Technology Minister Andrew Petter.

Petter said the B.C. government is adapting employment standards to meet the specific needs of the high-tech industry – the first province in the country to do so.

“We’re providing more workplace flexibility for high-tech companies, one of the underlying strengths in our economy,” Petter said.

Under the new standards, high-tech professionals will be exempt from requirements on hours of work, overtime and statutory holidays. Also, workers in companies where more than half of the employees are high-technology professionals will be partially exempt. In those companies, non-professional employees will be able to work up to 12 hours per day, or 80 hours over a two-week period, before being paid overtime at time-and-a-half.

“The high-tech industry is driven by short-term projects, frequently with penalty clauses attached, that often require intense work for limited periods of time. These changes will allow companies to deliver on those projects more effectively and cost-efficiently, while guaranteeing significant standards and protection for their employees,” Petter said.

According to Industrial Relations Officer for B.C.’s Ministry of Labour, Marc Hale, the existing Employment Standards Act didn’t fit the needs of the high-technology industry.

“It was not flexible enough,” Hale said.

“[High-tech] isn’t a factory where someone comes to work from nine-to-five or eight-to-four on a regular basis. This is project-based work. The requirement for working – in some cases – long hours, is there. Sometimes there isn’t much work between projects, so the requirements fluctuate.”

Hale said that the high-tech organizations didn’t want to have to pay overtime rates of pay, which they found limited their flexibility.

what do the techies think?

According to Hale, the initial response he received from the larger employer was that this regulation would not significantly alter the way business is conducted.

“The value of the regulation was perceived to be, for the startup company, that the bottom line pay period – from month to month – was a critical issue. This certainly allowed those companies the flexibility to operate and survive,” Hale said. “The responses to it have been both very positive, usually from the employer group, and not so positive from the employees, because they now find themselves working hours that do not pay overtime rates of pay.”

Hale said the regulation substitutes some performance-based pay for the overtime that they would otherwise receive.

“The critical part here is that the employer must insure that the performance-based compensation is adequate. It’s a critical thing for employees. Employees are concerned whether the performance-based pay will offset the lack of overtime they otherwise would receive.”

Hale stated that the critical issue for the employers is being able to schedule hours of work without having to be concerned with paying overtime rates of pay.

“There also are requirements that they supply performance-based pay or stock options and it be in a written contract of employment,” Hale said. “Performance-based pay; you won’t find that anywhere else.”

ontario fights for the same standards

According to Daniel Keppie, policy advisor of CATA Alliance, the Ontario government is reviewing its Employment Standards Act.

“It has put forward a number of proposals on its own to address the changing work habits and conditions today. As a trade association, we are hell bent on advocating favourable business conditions for its interest group,” Keppie said.

He said Ontario is proposing that it change its legislation to have a maximum 60 hours of work per week rule come in to effect, with overtime being payable after 48 hours.

“We look at that and we say that’s quite fine and dandy, but there is still a likelihood that in our industry certain classes of workers or companies entirely continue to violate that 60-hour work rule.”

Keppie said that high-tech companies and knowledge-base workers work more than your typical nine-to-five, 48-hour workweek, whether they are in front of their computer in their office or at a client site testing and installing products.

“All of those hours should be billed as work. And, if you’re being paid by the year through stock options, then the question remains. You’ve been paid very handsomely to do this work, but you’re violating an employment standard – not out of malice – but really out of necessity because it’s the nature of your job,” Keppie said.

“Even the proposed changes that Ontario is mandating do not adequately reflect the needs of many knowledge workers in the Ontario high-tech industry.”

Keppie said workers who are freed from obligation of time, can do all the creative work needed, which gives the management team an unquantifiable amount of growth and revenue.

“The revenue can be better (used for) research, development and accelerating sales,” Keppie said. “Companies see it as a growth motivator.”