Union pushes back as city moves all snow clearing labourers to shift work

A City of Edmonton grader works on a cold night along 112 Avenue at 67 Street in Edmonton, Alberta on Jan. 30, 2018. Ian Kucerak / Postmedia, file

The City of Edmonton is introducing a new labour practice for its snow and ice management department that would see all workers put on shift work starting Oct. 15.

The new system, which the city brought forward to workers in June, will have rotating shifts of workers serve as the crew that clears city roads after snowfalls. Under the new system, even labourers who have worked their way up to having a consistent shift will have to return to shift work, something that the union that represents city snow-clearing workers is unhappy with.

“One of the goals that people try to work towards and one of the purposes of long-term employment is getting yourself off of shift and onto a regular shift so that you could have more of a life,” said John Mervyn, president of CUPE Local 30.

The city says the main factor that plays into the decision to move labourers to shift work is getting better use of their equipment.

Under the current system, snow clearing equipment is fully used during some parts of the day and only partially used at other times.

“During the last snow and ice season, the shift structure provided 24/7 coverage, and appropriately 60 per cent of employees were on a rotating shift schedule. In addition, there were other employees who were assigned to straight eight-hour day shifts and straight eight-hour night shifts that operated Monday through Friday,” said a statement attributed to Brian Simpson, branch manager for the city’s parks and roads service.

“However, we were finding that these straight eight-hour schedules resulted in a lower utilization rate of our graders and plows during the night and weekends (compared to day shifts, when all graders and plows were active).”

But Mervyn says he doesn’t think that reasoning holds.

“Say you’ve got a total of 150 hours of labour. To reallocate those hours throughout the day, it’s still 150 hours of labour, regardless whether it’s daytime or nighttime,” he said.

Mervyn says one of the biggest things he’s heard from workers is that they’ll be unable to fulfill their parental obligations if they move to shift work.

“Because they have kids, they’ve got commitments they need to meet, whether it’s getting their kids to school or babysitting or daycare or even hockey games,” he said. “Now they aren’t going to be able to meet those commitments.”

However, Simpson says that the city has provided sufficient notice to workers.

“The city has provided a significant notice period for the change to the rotating shift, understanding the impact a change in work schedules can have on our employees’ personal circumstances,” he said in the statement.

The shift schedule that will begin in October involves rotating eight-hour shifts. The city has also presented workers with other shift options, but these would need to be approved by two-thirds vote from workers due to having shift lengths exceeding the union contract-mandated maximum eight hours.

Shift work has been found to lead to a number of negative acute and chronic issues.

Acute issues involve mistakes made or differences in mood due to sleepiness or fatigue associated with working irregular shifts.

Chronic issues are developed by some people who do shift work over longer stretches of time. These typically take the form of mental or physical health challenges.

“There’s evidence that if people who are working are often working shifts other than the regular 9–5 — for weeks, months, years — there can be accumulated consequences for cardiovascular health, and maybe for body weight,” said Cam Mustard, president of the Institute for Work and Health.

According to Statistics Canada, about one in four working Canadians are employed in some form of shift work.