Union Matters: Weather and Work

Union Matters host Deedee Slye talks to Lynette Johnson, Employee Relations Officer for Health Care, and Colin Sutton, President of Local 79, St. Mary’s University, about storm closure policies, collective agreement rights and employer expectations during a weather event. So if the weather outside is frightful, your workplace is closed and you have not been reassigned, sit back, relax, and listen in.


See below for a full transcript of this week’s podcast:

Hello and welcome to our Union Matters podcast about work and weather. I’m Deedee Slye and I’ll be your host today. I’m joined by Lynette Johnson, an Employee Relations Officer here at NSGEU. Also joining us on the phone is Colin Sutton, President of Local 79-St Mary’s University. With all of the bad weather we thought it might help the members to talk about your rights and responsibilities as an employee when bad weather hits. Lynette, can you tell me a bit about you and where you worked before you became and Employee Relations Officer (ERO)?


LJ Sure. Before I became an employee of NSGEU, I was an NSGEU member. I worked in the Chemistry Department at the VG and then later the Halifax Infirmary. We provided chemistry services, lab work, to patients in the Emergency Department, the ICUs, the ORs, and anybody on the regular unit who was not doing necessarily very well. My department ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Didn’t matter the weather, didn’t matter if it was a holiday, didn’t matter the hour.


DS Did any situation arise where there was a weather issue or weather event that interfered with normal operations in your experience?


LJ Absolutely. There was a variety of weather events over my 18 years working there. That created a lot of havoc within the department. One of them was – a severe or extreme example would have been – what we called the White Juan storm. I lived within walking distance of the hospital, so I was always able to get to work. My co-workers knew that, so very often they would – if I wasn’t scheduled, I would get a call because they couldn’t get in. I always could. My walk might not be nice, but it was always manageable. White Juan happened. I walked to work – horrid walk, completely horrid walk – but other people couldn’t get out and other people couldn’t get in. So I ended up spending two and a half days in the hospital and resting and eating in the hospital because of that situation. The roads were impassable. Public transit was non-existent. People were being told to stay off the roads because snow clearance was hindered if traffic was happening. It was a pretty severe circumstance.


DS And how did people – how did they know to stay home? How would they have been notified to come in or stay home?


LJ White Juan would have been a little bit of a different experience because of the severity of the storm. People would have gotten up in the morning and not been able to open their doors. A little bit of an unusual circumstance. Other instances we’ve had in the past – a couple of years ago around Valentine’s Day we had a big storm overnight, very blizzardy conditions, a lot of blowing snow. The hospital, having learned some things, made the decision to close not-vital services for those day: out-patient blood collection, out-patient clinics. There would be messages placed on the hospital web site, there were radio ads, I recall. Most departments would have a phone tree for getting hold of staff in what they would consider more emergency circumstances: a department is closed or there is some terrible other event happening and you need more staff to come in on a very short notice. We always had those kinds of plans in place, department by department, so people would know. But by and large, people were expected to get to work.


DS Can you tell me a bit about the university sector and St Mary’s in particular and the history of storm closure policy.


CS Sure, the university sector is a bit of a different beast when it comes to employers because not only are they responsible for the safety of their staff, but they bear a responsibility for the safety of the students as well. That works to the employer’s decision on whether to open, stay closed, delay opening, that kind of thing. At St Mary’s in particular, the catalyst for changes at St Mary’s was White Juan, which was kind of an outlier in terms of winter storms. It was also an event that happened particularly to St Mary’s. At the time, before White Juan, the strategy for storm closures was simply make a decision early and communicate that decision to the employees and students as best you can by calling the radio stations and conveying the information that we were closed and the televisions stations for their breakfast morning programs, that kind of thing. It was a very informal, no real solid policy around it. Unfortunately, we had a situation where we had one member who was very conscientious about his work and reporting to work. It was a point of pride of his that he never missed a day. Very good worker, very dedicated. Because White Juan was so severe – he took a bus in to work – because White Juan was so severe the buses were taken off the road, so he was now looking at walking into work. If you remember White Juan, walking was nearly impossible. He walked a fair distance to work. Hi bus ride probably would have taken him close to an hour, 45 minutes or so, so you can imagine what the walk was like. He walked to campus because he had to make the decision early to come in, earlier than normal because of the conditions and because the buses were off the road, but the word had not been communicated yet that the university was closed. Unfortunately, he took that as an indication the university was open and it ended in a very tragic result. That was the spur for St Mary’s in particular to develop a formal storm closure policy. The university formed a committee, a presidential committee that created the very first storm closure policy for St Mary’s University. It included how decisions were made, who was involved in the decisions, who made the decisions, how those decisions were advised, how the message was communicated, the communication plan became far more broad and is continuing to be tweaked today.


DS If a member in your local came to you and said “Where’s our storm policy located?” what would you tell them.


CS We have a specific portion of our web site that is dedicated to all of the university’s policies. That came about by the need to communicate university policies to the university community, but also for FOIPOP legislation and other influences like that. We decided to collect all our policies in one place and put them on the web site for anybody to find. We would direct that employee to that portion of the web site where the policy can be downloaded and read on their own. Also, with the storm closure policy in particular, at the beginning of the winter storm season, the policy is circulated by email to all of the staff. We remind staff of the procedures to be followed: if this happens then this – we lay things out for them in simple language. The problem with policies is that they’re written in policy-speak. Not everybody speaks that, so we lay everything out in plain language that this is the work flow that happens when we have a storm closure.


DS Lynette, as an ERO you represent Healthcare workers, and that’s your experience as well, that’s where you come from and that’s really cool.


LJ The employers, there’s two main acute care employers in Nova Scotia now, the Provincial Health Authority (NSHA), and the IWK. Both those organizations have pretty expansive storm leave, hazardous conditions policies that outline where people can find the information if there’s going to be closures or anything like that. So, with those being acute care facilities, they never entirely close. The expectation of the employer is that people will get to work. Everybody has to make that judgement when they’re looking at their circumstances and the weather and the road conditions – can I get there safety? If you can’t, then you shouldn’t. But if you can, then the expectation is you will. And if you can’t this time, the expectation of the employer – and the language in the collective agreement support it – that you would make contingency plans because you’ve learned something from the previous storm. So that, if that happens again, your efforts to come in to work would be more successful. When I look at the language in the collective agreement in the NSHA for the healthcare bargaining unit, it says that reasonable lateness beyond the start of the regular shift is paid storm leave paid by the employer – you don’t have to make up the time or use vacation or anything like that. The lateness has to be justified by the employee being able to establish that they made every reasonable effort to come to work and were unable. That does support the employer’s policy and position in that you learn something from this event so that you can make every reasonable effort the next time and have a different result.


DS How do our members feel about the healthcare storm closure language?


LJ Overall I think people are very happy that we have language in the collective agreement that protects employees when they can’t come to work, for a variety of reasons, let alone storms, hazardous road conditions and those things – there’s pay protected, it’s not considered to be AWOL, there’s no discipline issue. Sometimes there will be managers who are a little newer that try to disregard that aspect of the language from time to time, and when that happens we always want employees to contact us because we can intervene to ensure the language is applied correctly and that people are not punished – so to speak – because of their circumstances. The employee does have some responsibility in there to make efforts to get to work. It’s not just a given. There’s some different things that happen when the employer closes workplaces. That came out of the White Juan storm. All across the province there were a lot of workplaces closed. The employers – there was a variety of them at the time – some people were paid, some people weren’t, it was kind of all over the place. The NSGEU, on behalf of its members, filed policy grievances on the application of the storm leave provisions. We ended up taking that all the way to arbitration and it was Mr. Outhouse that had said that if the employer closed the employees’ place of work and did not reassign them it was a regular paid day and that cost was borne by the employer. That didn’t come out of the employee’s vacation or the employee didn’t have to make up the time or anything like that. That still stands. We’ve had to use that in recent years and go back to that decision with the employer when they have closed workplaces. If the employee calls in prior to that decision of the working being closed is made, then the employee is going to be subject to the provisions of the storm leave language. If the employer closes your place of work and doesn’t reassign you, it’s their responsibility to pay you regardless. If the employee calls in and says they can’t come in because of the storm BEFORE the employer makes the decision to close the workplace, then it is the employee’s responsibility under the collective agreement. That was the decision of Mr. Outhouse.


DS So if people have questions around their rights..


LJ They should talk to their workplace steward, if they have one. If they don’t they should call the NSGEU. The people who answer and screen the calls are very knowledgeable, they can provide advice. And of course, the EROs are always available to help navigate those issues with the employer.


DS So this seems like really mature language that exists in healthcare. Are there some locals that wouldn’t have storm policy or wouldn’t be as clear?


LJ Certainly I think there are locals that are newer or some organizations that are smaller that would not have such extensive storm leave language in a collective agreement or even necessarily even a very complex policy, such as the one Colin talked about. In those circumstances, my recommendation to anybody would be you have to evaluate the situation and make the decision that is right for you. If you feel it is unsafe for you to get to work, that’s what you need to communicate to your employer. We do have a lot of members who drive a lot. Think about our home support workers who drive all over the province in all kinds of weather, because people who are isolated in their homes for health reasons require that assistance. Those people, I take my hat off. They’re out there in some terrible weather. They have storm leave to some extent in their collective agreements, but it’s all over the place and some are better than others. Long term care facilities sometimes have, some don’t. Our civil service collective agreement has a fair storm leave language, so things are a little bit all over the place. Every time we go into a round of bargaining we’re talking about storm leave with the bargaining committee and with the employer. We’re always looking at what’s the best language we already have and seeing how close we can get to that and to move it all forward to have better and more protective language for people.


DS Colin, do you have anything you want to say about this?


CS The one thing worth mentioning is we get questions about why the labour code doesn’t really say anything about this. I think the reason why that is these kind of considerations are still – the language and practices – are still being matured and refined. There are only very few similarities from one workplace to the next. There are a lot of different variances as Lynette mentioned. Some places the employees go to a workplace. In other workplaces the employees travel, involves travel, requires travel. You really can’t craft any meaningful piece of language that would encompass all of those different scenarios and all of those different workplaces. Until we get a little better at this and get a little more experienced with storm closure and the applications and the problems involved, it would be difficult to write a piece of legislation to encompass this. I think a good place to start would be with the Outhouse Decision and take the basic idea of it that if the employer makes the decision to close the workplace and doesn’t reassign you, or doesn’t give you something else to, then the employer covers the time off. I think that would be a good place to start in building some legislation.


LJ I would agree, because certainly for some individuals in non-unionized environments, if they can’t come in to work, they make that decision, they call the employer that they can’t come in, but then they don’t get paid because there’s no protection. It’s a very difficult circumstance, especially when you think about people in the service sectors, non-unionized environments, no necessarily the highest paid occupations in a lot circumstances, and going without pay when you’re not highly paid is a very difficult thing.


DS If you’re a member of ours and you want to find out what your storm policy, what your employer’s storm policy is, would you look in both places? In your collective agreement and would you ask your employer about their policy?


LJ The employer’s policies are never, ever part of the collective agreement. The collective agreement provides some protection in certain circumstances and it’s a good place to look to know what you can and cannot expect if you call in sick – not sick, but for a storm and what you can expect and what you can access. The employer’s policies will be held with the employer, not with the union. So you would have to go to your employer directly. The IWK and the NSHA, all of their policies are online for the employees. Smaller workplaces might actually have policy manuals – physical policy manuals – as opposed to having a more sophisticated intranet system for people to access.


DS Awesome, and we heard about where Colin’s is online. Colin do you have anything in your collective agreement that has to do with storms?


CS We do not. The university prefers to rely on its policies for now. We couldn’t get language into the collective agreement because the policy was brand new. We wouldn’t even begin to know what kind of language to put around that, other than to refer to the policy.


DS Thank you Lynette and Colin for helping our members to understand their rights and responsibilities when bad weather hits. We hope you enjoyed this episode of Union Matters podcast. Thank you for tuning in. Have a great week!

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