The concept of a four-day workweek is gaining traction in Canada and worldwide. This alternative work schedule has ignited debates on its viability and potential impact on workplaces in Ontario. While the prospect may be appealing, employers need to carefully consider various legal implications before rushing to implement such a change. This article will delve into the potential legal issues surrounding a four-day workweek in Ontario, addressing areas such as constructive dismissal, overtime, human rights, and more.

What Is a Four-Day Work Week?

A four-day workweek is an alternative work arrangement where employees work for four days instead of the traditional five days a week. It offers flexibility in how employers and employees structure their work schedules. Here are the most common implementation models:

  1. Reduced Hours. Employees work fewer total hours per week (often 32 hours instead of 40) while maintaining the same pay and benefits. This is the model that typically leads to a better work-life balance for employees.
  2. Compressed Hours. Employees work longer shifts each day, for example, 10 hours instead of 8, to complete their standard weekly hours within four days. This model might be better suited to businesses that require continuous coverage and can benefit from minimizing shift handovers.
  3. Hybrid Models. Some workplaces may find success with a hybrid approach, combining reduced hours with slightly extended days. This can provide some flexibility while mitigating extremely long workdays.

Even with a four-day workweek, employers must adhere to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA). Regulations regarding overtime, break entitlements, daily/weekly hour limits, and statutory holidays still apply. The best implementation model for a four-day workweek will vary depending on the specific needs of the business and its employees. Careful consideration of operational needs, work-life balance preferences, and potential legal/logistical challenges is crucial.

Could Implementing a Four-Day Work Week Engender a Constructive Dismissal Claim?

Constructive dismissal occurs when an employer unilaterally makes substantial changes to the fundamental terms of the employment contract without the employee’s consent. A shift to a four-day workweek could potentially be considered a constructive dismissal under certain circumstances.

  • Reduced Hours – If a four-day workweek involves a reduction in hours and a corresponding reduction in pay, it could trigger a constructive dismissal claim.
  • Compressed Hours – Even if pay remains the same, significantly longer working days may be viewed as a fundamental change to employment terms, particularly if they negatively impact an employee’s work-life balance or ability to fulfill responsibilities outside of work.

To mitigate the risk of constructive dismissal claims, employers considering a four-day workweek should ideally obtain express written consent from their employees and provide adequate notice of any changes.

Overtime, Lunch Breaks, And Working Week Considerations

Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) sets out regulations for overtime, meal breaks, and the maximum number of weekly work hours. Implementing a four-day workweek requires careful adherence to these regulations.

  • Overtime – In Ontario, the overtime threshold is 44 hours per week. With a compressed four-day workweek, employees may hit overtime earlier if their daily shifts are longer. Employers need to track hours carefully and be prepared to pay overtime accordingly.
  • Lunch Breaks – Employees are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break after every five consecutive hours of work. Employers need to ensure this break is provided, even within a longer workday structure.
  • Working Week – While the ESA has some flexibility around daily hour limits, the weekly limit generally remains in place. Depending on the specific hours of a compressed workweek, employers may need to consider special agreements with employees to manage work hours.

Consulting a Toronto labour lawyer can be extremely helpful in navigating the complexities of how the ESA applies to a four-day workweek model. They can provide guidance on overtime calculations, break requirements, and potential modifications to employment agreements.

Potential Human Rights Issues

The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination based on various protected grounds, including family status, disability, creed (religion), and others. A shift to a four-day workweek could raise human rights concerns, including:

  • Family Status. Employees with childcare or eldercare responsibilities might find it challenging to manage longer workdays. An employer’s failure to accommodate these needs could lead to a claim of discrimination.
  • Disability. Employees with disabilities may require flexible work arrangements. Forcing them to work longer days could exacerbate health conditions and potentially constitute discrimination.
  • Creed. Employees might have religious obligations that prevent them from working on specific days or during certain hours. Employers must consider these needs to avoid discrimination.

Employers should be mindful of their duty to accommodate employees up to the point of undue hardship. This means exploring alternative arrangements or flexible schedules to address any potential discrimination claims proactively.

Benefits Plans

Employers should carefully review their existing benefits plans to assess the impact of a four-day workweek on areas such as:

  • Eligibility. Some benefits plans might have eligibility requirements based on a certain number of hours worked per week or a classification of employees as full-time. Shifting to a four-day schedule could affect eligibility.
  • Premiums and Contributions.  Employers may need to adjust payroll deductions and employer contributions if a four-day workweek results in a change to employee pay or hours worked.
  • Coverage. Benefits like short-term and long-term disability may be calculated based on earnings. Changes in work schedules and hours could impact these calculations if not carefully considered.

Employers should work with their benefits providers and administrators to review their plan provisions and ensure that employees maintain appropriate coverage under a four-day workweek model.

While a four-day workweek may offer potential benefits, employers in Ontario must carefully consider the numerous legal implications involved. Addressing issues like potential constructive dismissal, overtime calculations, accommodation obligations, and benefits adjustments are critical for a successful transition.

Before implementing a four-day workweek, it is highly advisable for employers to consult with an employment lawyer. This will ensure compliance with Ontario’s labor laws and minimize the risk of costly legal disputes.