COVID-19 brings challenges and opportunities in labour relations

Posted on April 20, 2021
COVID-19 brings challenges and opportunities in labour relations

Employers and unions have faced unprecedented challenges navigating the COVID-19 pandemic since its declaration on March 11, 2020. Health and safety issues, changes in the delivery of service and adjustments to the workforce have all tested the capacity of labour partners to work together in the interests of the workplace, the workers and the organizational mandate.

Given the rapid, reactive decision-making required to address the implications of COVID-19 at the outset of the pandemic, employers may have viewed the engagement of the union as unduly onerous. Decisions made outside the labour relations framework may have given rise to solutions that demanded further adjustment due to unanticipated implications and possible organizational resistance. The iterative nature of decision-making over the last 14 months, however, has given employers repeated opportunities to renew their connection with the union with an aim of deciding how best to respond to emerging challenges.

A key opportunity presented to employers and unions is in the realm of health and safety. Both employer and union have obligations to ensure the employer fulfills their statutory obligation to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers. With the implementation of government-mandated COVID-19 safety plans and the additional requirement to screen and report COVID-19 infections, labour relations have been tested to ensure that protocols and practices balance the competing interests of workplace, workers and organizational mandate. The evolution of these protocols has called on the partnership of both employer and union to contribute to an increasingly safer organization.

The issue of COVID-19 screening is a current area of labour relations tension. Recent arbitrated rulings (see links to decisions below) offer direction on screening implementation. Employers have an opportunity to engage the union to ensure worker engagement and to achieve the best outcomes for workers and the workplace.

The delivery of work has also been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Many employers have had to adjust their requirements regarding the location of the workplace. Employers who pre-pandemic may have resisted remote work programs have been forced to implement IT infrastructure upgrades and policy adjustments to allow workers to work from home. This change has put pressure on both unions and management to adjust how they offer support to workers.

The pandemic has impacted the bottom line for many employers with, in many cases, a reduction in revenue and/or organizational mandate. Employers have benefited from government wage and rent subsidies to offer a bridge to keep workers employed, but some have identified the need to reduce temporarily the workforce. The impact on employment, if only temporary, poses hardship for the workers affected. For indigenous, black, and racialized workers, these hardships are even more pronounced. Furlough agreements and government benefits have mitigated some of these effects, but the challenges to workers and the workplace are significant.

Finally, the standard tasks of labour relations must continue. Collective agreements must be negotiated and renewed, grievances must be heard and settled, and workers must be assessed and supported. In most instances, these processes have migrated to virtual platforms. There is a risk that these interactions become transactional, eroding a labour relationship essential for a healthy and productive workplace. Seen as an opportunity, the parties can work through this risk to strengthen labour relations and ensure they are well-placed to be responsive and proactive in meeting the needs of the workplace when the challenge of COVID-19 has passed.

Check out Schulich ExecEd’s Managing in a Unionized Work Environment to gain legal and leadership perspectives and better understand employment laws and how to build progressive workplaces. Speak with an advisor today to learn more. 

Bernard King is a labour relations specialist with more than 15 years’ of experience in industrial relations, conflict resolution and workplace mediation.