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Canada Ice Storm Hinders Business

January 15, 1998

MONTREAL (AP) _ Employers shouldn’t have to pay workers for days missed during the ice storm or even have to pay them overtime to make up lost production, says a leading business association.

``As a general rule, we think companies should pay their absent employees despite the power failure,″ said Gerald Ponton, chief executive of the Alliance of Manufacturers and Exporters of Quebec.

``Every employer would like to be able to do the same thing but they don’t all have the financial resources.″

Most of the thousands of employees who normally work in downtown Montreal missed a whole week because of the storm and its aftermath.

As for overtime, Ponton said Thursday that small companies should be exempt from a provision in Quebec labor laws that requires a 50-per-cent premium for hours worked beyond a 43-hour week.

``We can’t expect the more shaky ones to have to pay a huge overtime bill, Ponton said Thursday. ``It would be rather unfortunate if they had to pay up and go under.″

IBM Canada employees are among the lucky ones. The 2,000 at a circuit board plant in Bromont, Que. who have been off work since Monday will get full pay for all days missed. IBM’s office workers in Montreal will also be paid.

The Quebec Federation of Labor, somewhat surprisingly, said it’s willing to look at the question of overtime cutbacks.

``I’m not for closing the door to that possibility but I don’t want to see employers using the storm as a pretext for squeezing their workers,″ said federation president Clement Godbout.

He said it should be examined on a case-by-case basis rather than by provincial decree.

Labor Minister Matthias Rioux said he is studying Ponton’s suggestion that smaller companies be exempt temporarily from the Labor Code’s overtime provisions. He will meet with Ponton next week.

Ponton estimtes 60 per cent of Quebec’s manufacturing sector has been affected by the ice storm, which began Jan. 6. Coupled with a request by Hydro-Quebec for businesses to cut back consumption, Ponton estimates the plant and office closings are costing the economy between $80 million and $100 million a day.

Ponton believes most of the shortfall will be made up in the long term.

The manufacturers’ association also called on federal authorities to issue a decree to cancel the two-week penalty for employees who were temporarily laid off as a result of the storm.

An aide to Employment Minister Pierre Pettigrew said the minister was looking for a solution.

A company with a huge overtime bill will be Hydro-Quebec.

Spokesman Renee Arsenault said the utility has not even begun to count the cost of crews working 24 hours a day, plus outside crews from neighboring utilities.

Meanwhile, all Hydro employees are expected to be at work, but if they can’t they won’t lose pay, said Arsenault.

``It wouldn’t be fair to penalize employees for something completely out of their control.″