Implementing flexible work arrangements in 2024? Ensure flexibility doesn’t result in employer liability

Flexible work arrangements are gaining momentum. This shift has largely been driven by a desire to prevent employee burnout or general fatigue and enhance work-life balance. In fact, many workplaces that have tested out flexible work arrangements have seen improvements in employee morale and productivity.

One of the more popular models is the implementation of the four-day work week, most commonly taking one of the following forms:

  1. employees who work eight hours per day for four days per week but receive the same amount of pay as a 40-hour work week;
  2. employees who work eight hours per day for four days per week and receive a proportionally reduced amount of pay; or
  3. employees who work ten hours per day for four days per week and receive the same amount of pay as a 40-hour work week.

There are a number of factors that should be considered when determining the best approach to a four-day work week for any particular workplace. When implementing a four-day work week (or any other type of flexible work arrangement), even on just a temporary or trial basis, it is important not to lose sight of an employer’s legislative and common law employment obligations.

In 730372 Ontario Limited (Blow Mould Engineering) v. Firer, 2008 CanLII 22502 (Ont LRB), the employer decided to transition from a structure with salaried employees who typically worked five-day work weeks, Monday to Friday, with the regular hours of 8 a.m.-5 p.m., to what the employer described as a “flexible work schedule” where employees would be paid hourly and scheduled to work longer hours on some days or on weekends in order to meet the needs of clients. The company designed and manufactured molds for plastic containers. Shortly after making this transition, the employer abruptly announced that it would be eliminating Friday work – unilaterally transitioning a number of employees from a five-day work week to a four-day work week.

Ontario Labour Relations Board found that the employer’s move to a flexible work arrangement (at least in the circumstances before the Board) resulted in constructive dismissal. In the Board’s opinion, the changes that the employer made resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of pay employees were receiving (about 21%), as well as notable changes to the employees’ benefits and daily work hours. Additionally, these changes were made without providing the employees with sufficient notice of the change. As such, employees who disagreed with the employer’s transition to a flexible work arrangement were entitled to treat their employment as terminated and claim damages for wrongful dismissal.

This decision serves as an important reminder to employers to carefully review their common law and legislative obligations before transitioning to a new type of work schedule. In addition to common law risks such as constructive dismissal, there are a number of minimum standards set out in employment legislation that will be relevant to consider, such as the maximum number of hours of work, notice of work schedules, required breaks and days of rest, and overtime pay.

Join us at the 2024 Saskatchewan Labour Update seminar for a more in-depth discussion of the legislative and common law considerations for Saskatchewan employers when implementing flexible work arrangements. This topic will be part of our discussion of “What is Next in Workplace Law?” which will also cover other upcoming and timely employment issues, including AI use in the employment sector and harassment case law trends. Click here for information on the seminar and to register for Regina on May 8, 2024 and Saskatoon & Virtual on May 14, 2024.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice of opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.