WestJet pushes feds for exemption from employee group termination rules

WestJet has written to the federal government to seek an exemption from labour rules that require a 16-week notice of termination as the airline looks to lay off a large swath of its workforce.

In the letter obtained by CTV News, the company’s Executive Vice President of People and Culture Mark Porter says due to "unprecedented circumstances" as a result of COVID-19, the company expects to permanently reduce its workforce by 50 people or more, triggering Division IX of the Canada Labour Code.

Among other guidelines, Division IX states that in circumstances of group termination within a four-week period, a 16- week notice – as opposed to two weeks – must be given to employees and to the Minister of Employment and Social Development and the Canada Employment Insurance Commission.

Porter is requesting exemption from the Notice of Group Termination and the Joint Planning Committee Requirements clauses, which he notes are "unduly prejudicial to the interests of the company's employees and to the company, and are seriously detrimental to the operations of the company's industrial establishments."

In his plea to Labour Minster Filomina Tassi, he noted the 16-week wait period would act as a "burden" for WestJet employees who have interchangeable skills and are capable of seeking work elsewhere. Porter also notes that keeping employees on the payroll would hinder the company’s ability to react quickly in a turbulent economic environment.

"The company’s ability to take decisive action in our staffing decisions to respond to these factors in a timely manner is critical to our commercial viability, let along our competitiveness both today and in the future," he says.

The airline sector has been hit hard by the pandemic with ensuing travel restrictions both internationally and domestically. Many carriers have announced major layoffs, including Air Canada which announced last week it was cutting “approximately 50 to 60 percent" of its workforce as a result of declining revenues.

The government hasn’t declared whether it will provide specific support to the sector but continues to encourage small and large carriers to apply to relevant aid programs put in place as a result of COVID-19.

WestJet’s letter states that even on the other side of the pandemic, it’s "unlikely" the company will be able to retain all current employees.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees has responded to the request, saying it "strongly opposes" WestJet’s application for exemption and encourages Tassi and the government at large to take steps to thwart the move.

"CUPE recognizes the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on WestJet’s operations, the airline industry and the Canadian economy," reads the union letter, also obtained by CTV News.

"It is precisely because of the significant impact of the pandemic that establishment of a joint planning committee is necessary."

It goes on to state that a committee would help reduce future terminations and protect remaining employees still on payroll.

"The opportunity to participate in the joint planning committee process is especially important because our members are not yet protected by a collective agreement. WestJet says they are already consulting with unions and employee associations and this is a form of notice to unions and employee associations. Respectfully, there are important differences between these conversations and the establishment of a joint planning committee."

Under Divison IX, at least half of the members of a joint planning committee must be representatives of terminated employees to ensure equal representation.

"In CUPE’s respectful submission a joint committee is necessary to protect the interests of employees. Through this process, our members can be a partner in ensuring the long-term viability of WestJet."

With files from CTV News' Glen McGregor

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