Taking care of business

What do you call an employee who works sixty hours a week, doesn’t receive (or ask for) overtime and does it all with a smile on his or her face? While you might think that the punch line should be “a sucker,” the truth of the matter is in B.C., such employees are called IT professionals.

In early 1999, the then-NDP government introduced a change to its employment standards for the province’s high-tech industry. The changes included an exemption of high-technology professionals from requirements relating to hours of work, overtime and statutory holidays, and a redefinition of what exactly a high-tech professional is.

For anyone who has ever worked as a fry guy at a fast food outlet and has had to squeeze a size six shoe onto a size nine foot for a mother-of-the-bride, these regulations seem outrageous. However, for those in the IT industry, they make a lot of sense.

“When I first started in this industry, I was asked to work a weekend, so I asked about overtime pay,” Faye West, the Edmonton-based president of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS), remembered.

“I was curious, because it was the first time it ever happened. What my boss said to me was: ‘What do you want, a job or a career?’ I think that most people in IT look at it as a career and something that they do because they love doing it. It’s not just a job. I think that there are probably very few people in retail who would say that.”

Like medicine or law, an IT profession is one that is not naturally governed by a clock. Because it is such a project-driven industry, where deadlines can propel or cripple a company, flexibility in work hours is imperative to a high-tech organization’s success. Some believe the difference in B.C. is that the government has finally acknowledged this.

“I consider IT to be a profession, and most professions aren’t guided by work week laws. We do work some strange hours,” West admitted, “but it’s almost a requirement of the job. Projects tend to have deadlines and you need to work as many hours that it takes to get the job done.”

George Hunter, the Vancouver-based executive director of British Columbia’s Technology Industry Association (BCTIA) and a key player in seeing the changes in regulations come about, described the process of having the regulation passed.

“The industry found itself in non-compliance by accident with existing employment standards of the province,” Hunter explained. “When they looked at what was codified in the employment standards at the time, they found that if they were to make the changes to meet the employment standards, they would have to dramatically change the work environment, from their perspective, for the negative,” he said.

“So they convinced the NDP government at that time to convene a three-person panel, which had one government deputy minister, a member of the Ministry of Labour and one person from organized labour to hear the case for and against changing employment standards for the high-tech industry.

“We arranged for the panel to visit five high-tech companies and to meet with the employees without management in the room for town hall meetings,” Hunter continued. “The employees universally rejected going to what they perceived to be a highly rigid and really onerous set of standards. They suggested that the appropriate thing for the government to do would be to change the set of standards to codify what was really the current practice in the industry.”

Stating the obvious

Barry Johnston, the Vancouver-based manager of recruitment at Pivotal Software confirms that the change in the work week was more of a reinforcement of what was already going on rather than an alteration of practice.

“It allowed us to continue business as we were conducting it before,” Johnston explained. “The industry was doing this anyway, and the government was reacting.”

Marc Hale, the Vancouver-based industrial relations officer for the Ministry of Skills Development and Labour for the province of B.C. stressed that this shift in regulation is not an invitation for employers to exploit their workers. In fact, a stipulation of the change includes the requirement for IT professionals to be remunerated with performance-based compensation or stock options.

“The remuneration packages must be set out,” Hale stated. “This is not a discretionary payment.”

One DSP engineer based in Vancouver, who didn’t want to be identified, explained that overtime is more of a rule than an exception in IT – which is part of the reason why there has been so little fallout over the change.

“If I was asked to work horrendous overtime, I’d just do it,” he admitted. “I’ll work hard and burn myself out, but if a company asked me to keep it up continuously without any kind of benefits, I’d just quit. A lot of other people would quit too. The fact is, that in Vancouver the pay is much less than in other major cities, so if a company cuts back on benefits and flexibility, you can go and find a job in Ottawa or the States.”

In an industry where the employees are the resources, it is imperative for companies to recognize this and not manipulate the law by creating high-tech sweatshops.

“People are the crown jewels in IT. They need to be courted and wooed and are often times part owners of the company,” Eric Manning, a professor at the University of Victoria suggested. “Yes, you need these laws for mining and retail and government employees, but to impose a labour code on IT professionals [as was in place before February, 1999] was madness. What the government did was make a belated effort to recognize that there’s more to an economy than people who don’t enjoy what they’re doing. IT is a whole new universe. The government has finally made a dent in the wall that they’ve built.”

The second part to the regulation involved the definition of a high-tech professional. Those employees working for a high-tech company that do not fit into any of these categories are partially exempt, and are able to work up to twelve hours per day or 80 hours over a two-week period before being paid overtime at time-and-a-half.

“The regulation is flexible,” Hale stated. “It recognizes professionals who have gained in valuable experience by doing the job without having the formal education component.”

This must come as a relief for such non-graduates as Bill Gates and Scott McNeally, who would be able to work late at their offices without breaking the law if they were based in B.C.

“I was just at a meeting about cold fusion,” Vancouver-based consultant Robert Ford said. “The IT professionals working on it are me – the owner of the company, with a degree in English literature; my number one IT guy who has a degree in performance music specializing in the French horn; and my number two who is a golf pro. I would classify all of these people as IT professionals.”

According to Hale, other provinces, as well as other countries that are considering altering their own regulations for high-tech workers, have approached the B.C. government about the policy.

Of course, like all regulations, this one is subject to review, and with a new government in B.C.’s legislature, this policy could change, a possibility that many IT professionals are guarding against.

“High tech workers will work their hours regardless of the law,” Paul said. “IT workers are used to working in pulse mode. It’s the nature of the business. You know you’re going to work OT, but in the end it always balances out