Family Day turns dysfunctional
Dalton McGuinty's much-vaunted new holiday may be more trouble than it's worth
Chris Selley | Jan 10, 2008 | 15:53:40
Among high-minded Ontarians, and those with Progressive Conservative or New Democrat tendencies, Dalton McGuinty's campaign-trail promise to enact a new statutory holiday in February was never especially popular. "He's had four years to do this if he thought it was a good idea," Progressive Conservative leader John Tory sniffed, while NDP leader Howard Hampton noted that McGuinty had killed an identical private member's bill in 2003. "I am appalled that this government would attempt to offer a new statutory holiday in exchange for votes while the brunt of the cost of such a holiday is borne by the employers of the province," Jeff Rogerson, from North Bay, wrote to the Toronto Star. "The class president, it seems, has been reduced to offering us more recess," the National Post's editorial board sneered. "What's next, free bubble gum?"
Well, why not? People like bubble gum. They like days off work. And whether or not the promise helped the Liberals win their second majority government, on October 11, as one of the first acts of his new mandate, McGuinty declared February 18 the province's new Family Day. From Kenora to Cornwall, from Kingsville to Moosonee, there would be pond hockey, crackling fires, hot chocolate, rosy-cheeked youngsters and an overarching sense of good cheer. There might even be sleigh rides.
Alas, nothing's that simple in Canada. Turns out, Family Day is going to cost money. The City of Toronto pegs it at $2.3 million, not including the Toronto Transit Commission, which estimates its own tab at $2.5 million. The city of Timmins predicts a $60,000 dent to its coffers, meanwhile, and saw no reason it should pay it. It plans to ask the Ontario Association of Municipalities to wheedle a Family Day subsidy out of McGuinty. It was his idea, after all.
Meanwhile, Rogerson's comment about employers bearing the brunt of the costs for new holiday turned out to be rather prescient, if not entirely correct. As it turns out, some bosses needn't pay a dime. "[F]or many employers, there is an answer," lawyer Howard Levitt wrote last month in the Financial Post. "Just say no!"
As it turns out, the Employment Standards Act, which sets out the rules governing statutory holidays, is really about minimum standards. If an employment contract provides "a greater benefit to an employee" than the Act, "the provision or provisions in the contract … apply." In English: The law entitles you to nine holidays. If your boss already gives you 10, not only does he not have to give you an 11th just because Dalton McGuinty thinks he ought to—he doesn't even have to give you Family Day off!
"[E]mployers who are already providing 10 or more holidays a year can, in my view, require their employees to work on Family Day with impunity," Levitt wrote. "[S]enior officers in the Employment Standards Branch … generally believe my opinion is correct." The employment lawyers at Emond Harnden agree. But if it's any consolation, this isn't a new phenomenon. Levitt confirms that an employer could just as easily haul his minions in on Christmas or Victoria Day, so long as he kept their total number of holidays and float days above nine.
That might not do much for office morale, of course. And it's the sort of thing that turns union leaders purple-faced. Law firm Emond Harnden cautions employers that even if they're entitled to withhold the new holiday, they should "consider carefully whether to raise the issue during bargaining." Middlesex County has announced its workers will go wanting for family fun on February 18th, something CUPE representative Fred Blake called "totally preposterous." In nearby London, on the other hand, CUPE members were chuffed to find their contract specifically entitled them to any and all new holidays. The City of Toronto considered its options and gave all its employees Family Day off… except the police, who are in the midst of contract renegotiations.