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What is seniority?


By Erin Moores

If you’re a young fresh face starting a new unionized job, this concept called seniority may be a bit frustrating for you right now. But if you’re 10 or 20 years in, you’re probably now reaping its full benefits. But what is this common concept in collective agreements in Canada and how does it work to affect workers’ rights?

In Canada, where do we see seniority-based rights in the workplace?

Workers who find their rights affected by seniority are almost always unionized or in an employee association that has bargained collective rights for its members. These rights are found in a contract called a collective agreement that is negotiated by the union and employer.

However, not all collective agreements contain seniority-related rights. For example, many federal public servants who are unionized do not have the concept of seniority in their collective agreements.

For the non-unionized, it’s quite possible that your employer has formal policies or informal practices that accord rights or advantages to employees based on who has worked there the longest, but the true concept of seniority, as described below, is rarely found outside the unionized workplace.

What is seniority (and how is it different from “service”)

Where seniority is part of a collective agreement, we often find a related but distinct concept called “service” or “years of service.” Both seniority and service refer to the amount of time an individual has worked for the employer. However, depending on what the employer and union have negotiated, they usually apply to and trigger different kinds of rights.

Seniority refers to an individual’s position on a list of all employees, where those who’ve worked there the longest are at the top and the least are at the bottom. Let’s imagine that the union and employer have agreed that seniority will be counted for each employee from the first day they start work in a job that is covered by the collective agreement (a job that is “in the bargaining unit”). The most senior employee is the person who has worked in the bargaining unit for the most days and they go to the top of the seniority list. If the bargaining unit has 200 employees, then the employer will have a list of all 200 individuals, from the most senior at the top to the least senior at the bottom. This way, the union, employer, and all current employees have a clear idea of where they sit on the list.

From there, the parties will have negotiated as to why seniority matters. What benefits do employees get because of their seniority? A common benefit in some sectors would be priority consideration for job openings. Some collective agreements say that where two employees are equally qualified for a job, the employer must hire the person who is most senior of the two, even if that person has only one more day of seniority than the other. Some collective agreements go further and say that the employer must hire the most senior qualified person for the job. This means that even if the less senior employee is more qualified for the job, the employer must hire the more senior one (even if they just have one more day of seniority!) if they are also qualified. We can easily see why this approach can be frustrating for new employees but very advantageous for more senior ones.

The parties could also negotiate many more types of very important rights that are affected by seniority. For example, they may agree that if the employer lays off employees for operational reasons, it must lay off in reverse order of seniority (i.e., the least senior would be let go first). Another common example is priority to senior employees in vacation scheduling: where two employees request the same week as vacation, but operational needs only allow for one of them to be off at that time, the employer must give that week of vacation to the more senior of the two.

In this way, seniority provides advantages to an individual over other individuals in the bargaining unit who have less seniority.

Service, as we noted, is also about the amount of time an employee has worked for an employer, but it’s a distinct concept in many collective agreements.

Let’s imagine that the same union and employer in our example have negotiated that service for full-time employees will be counted in years. As with seniority, the parties will then have negotiated as to why service matters. What benefits do employees get because of the number of years of service they have? One easy example is vacation entitlement. A common style of formula in some collective agreements goes something like:

  • Employees with less than one year of service are entitled to one week of vacation per year;
  • Employees with more than one but less than four years of service are entitled to two weeks of vacation per year;
  • Employees with more than four but less than ten years of service are entitled to three weeks of vacation per year;
  • …and so on.

In this style of formula, if Employee 1 has just under four years of service, they would have the same vacation entitlement (two weeks per year) as Employee 2, who has just over a year of service. Often, this is how service works to affect rights. It’s not about giving a benefit to an individual over others because they’ve worked there longer and are higher on the list. Instead, service groups employees with similar years of service into categories, then the right in question is applied to all employees within that category.

In the vacation entitlement example above, when it comes to seniority, Employee 1 would be higher (likely much higher) on the seniority list than Employee 2. If, for example, both employees wanted to book the same two weeks of vacation near the December holidays, and the employer needed one of them to work, then it would be a no-brainer – Employee 1 would get those two weeks if the collective agreement provided that vacation scheduling decisions are to be made based on seniority.

Lastly, the concept of service plays a role for many non-unionized employees as well. For example, employment standards legislation and employment contracts often provide for entitlement to reasonable notice upon termination and severance payments to increase as an employee accumulates years of service. Pension entitlements after retirement are often partly based on years of service too. But as we’ve seen, these are different from rights that provide one individual with an advantage over others solely because they have worked there the longest.

But isn’t this seniority thing kind of a raw deal for the least senior employees?

Well, yes it is, in some ways. In a collective agreement that provides rights based on seniority, the least senior employees can have the least job security and many other disadvantages compared to the most senior employees.

But like many terms and conditions agreed to in a collective agreement, the choice of a union to agree to seniority-based rights involves a trade-off: it ensures better job security and increasing advantages as an employee’s seniority rises but requires less senior employees to put in the time to climb up the list. It means that it is possible that a more senior employee might get a job or keep their job over a less senior employee who the employer believes is more qualified or a better “fit”. One of the important advantages to employees, however, is that it also removes some of the potential for discriminatory, biased, arbitrary, nepotistic, or reprisal-oriented decision making in situations that have great potential to affect a person’s livelihood.

And don’t forget that the agreement between an employer and union to create rights based on seniority is just that: an agreement that the parties reach because it offers benefits to both sides. For an employer, seniority-based rights have traditionally helped incentivize employees to stay on longer term and provide stability for the employer’s workforce, which is a part of why employers have long agreed, and still agree, to trade off some of their decision-making discretion in favour of seniority-based rights.

As always, these are just the basics. There are many more examples of ways that unions and employers agree to base certain rights on seniority and/or years of service – or not. There is also, of course, lots of debate about the pros and cons of these trade-offs and about what the “best” approaches are.