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If you’re a female employee working for a federally regulated organization, Ottawa’s new Pay Equity Act could net you a pay bump over the next few years.

But it may be partly up to unions and workers themselves to make sure employers keep up with deadlines and stay on top of their obligations, labour consultants and lawyers say.

The federal pay equity legislation, which came into force at the end of August, 2021, and follows in the footsteps of similar laws in Ontario and Quebec, requires that public and private federally regulated employers with 10 employees or more develop plans to address gender-based pay inequities by September, 2024.

Nearly a year in, experts say, workers should be seeing signs that their employers are devising these plans.

While fewer than one million private-sector employees in Canada – or less than 6 per cent of the private-sector work force – work for federally regulated employers, Ottawa’s pay equity legislation could result in sweeping adjustments to how much women are paid in sectors such as banking, transportation, telecommunications and postal and courier services, among other industries. (In the federal public sector, the law applies to parliamentary workplaces and the Prime Minister’s and ministers’ offices.)

The legislation is meant to improve pay for “pink-collar jobs” – that is, occupations traditionally done by women that are paid less than equally valuable roles performed primarily by men. These could be in industries like the financial sector, where several job classes are traditionally performed by women, or male-dominated sectors such as trucking and railways, where women nonetheless dominate certain categories, like administrative and human resources roles.

Companies, get your pay equity act together

The task for employers is to look at whether any gaps exist between pay for job classes typically held by women (for example, police dispatchers) and compensation in male-dominated occupations that bring similar value to the same organization (say, special constables, another civilian role in law enforcement).

Organizations must then bridge any discrepancies they find by bringing the pay in the female-dominated professions in line with that in the male-dominated ones that were used for comparison.

Janet Borowy, co-chair of the Equal Pay Coalition and a labour lawyer at Toronto-based Cavalluzzo LLP, said she is “very optimistic” that the initial phase of implementation of the federal pay equity law will result in significant benefits for women in underpaid, female-dominated occupations.

But maintaining pay equity is another matter, she added, because “employers let things slide.”

That has often been the case in Ontario. Initial implementation of the province’s 1987 Pay Equity Act led to a slew of pay adjustments. A group of secondary-school secretaries, for example, received annual raises of $7,680, based on a comparison with the salaries of audio-visual technicians. Similarly, a group of police dispatchers got increases of $7,179 annually after being compared with radio technical supervisors.

But the province’s Pay Equity Commission, responsible for enforcement of the act, has been woefully underfunded since the mid-1990s, according to the Equal Pay Coalition, an advocacy organization.

Ontario’s Pay Equity Hearings Tribunal, which is part of the commission, “does not currently play a major role in addressing gender discrimination” in the province, Omar Ha-Redeye, a lawyer at Toronto-based Fleet Street Law, said in an e-mail.

“We deal with most of these issues under the Human Rights Tribunal,” he added.

Pay equity laws are separate from human-rights legislation, which, at the federal, provincial and territorial levels, addresses discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability and other grounds.

Advocates say employees and unions have roles to play in ensuring employers both comply with the initial review required by Ottawa’s Pay Equity Act and keep monitoring compensation on a continuing basis.

If you’re a federally regulated employee wondering where to start, a good first step is to ask HR or your union whether your workplace has posted a public notice informing workers of their employer’s obligation to create a pay equity plan – and, if the organization is large enough, a pay equity committee. All organizations subject to the act were supposed to post such notices by the start of November.

If a note hasn’t been posted, chances are your organization is already falling behind, said Toronto-based pay equity consultant Olivia Batt.

If you’re not part of a union and feel skittish about checking in with HR about the issue, another option is to join or start an employee resource group for women and pay equity, Ms. Batt suggested. Such groups for marginalized workers are usually formed by employers and given significant autonomy. They’re a way for employees to engage their bosses without fear of exposing themselves individually, she said.

Yet another way to check in with your employer is to contact executive management about the issue using existing anonymous communication channels, or through a company ombudsperson, Ms. Batt added.

It’s essential that employees be part of their organizations’ pay equity committees, according to Ms. Borowy, because they have the best understanding of the value of the work they do every day.

“Every employee should be watching for that committee,” she said.

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