From the Beginning
In early January, organisers from the Retail Action Network met up with Shea, a barista from downtown Victoria’s Wild Coffee. She let us know that she was removed from the schedule, and was unable to get her last paycheque from her employer, Marla Donaldson.
Since the Retail Action Network first began, we had heard stories from retail and hospitality workers from across the region that had regularly faced exploitation, harassment, and injustice as a part of their employment experience in the service industry. Many of these stories have been documented in the “Part-time, poorly paid, unprotected” report that launched this spring.
The stories that we were hearing, however, were almost always from workers that had since moved on to another workplace or another industry. There was always a sense that it was too late for us to do anything about these individual cases, and most workers had since given up on trying to retrieve any of the wages that had been stolen from them by their past employers.
Our organisation was very new at the time, and our aim was to support retail, food service, and hospitality workers that were being exploited by their bosses. Naturally, when we heard of Shea’s experiences at Wild Coffee, we decided to figure out ways that we could help, as this was a fresh case.
When myself and Annie sat down with Shea, we were inspired by hearing the courage she had and her willingness to be involved in this campaign, and to publicly demand the wages she was owed.
To start things off, we made phone calls together to the cafe and to Marla’s cell phone to try and get the last paycheque. After making a number of calls, we were hopeful to pick up the final wages. When we looked over the paystub, we found that Shea was being paid below minimum wage; was missing hours; and was owed severance for being taken off of the schedule. To our calculation, the total wages owed came to just shy of $500.
When we contacted Marla to explain what we had found, and to try to reach some common understanding, things did not go so well. Marla told us to “take further action then!”. This is when we began a more public campaign with the help of our friends and community. We organised to retrieve the lost wages that were owed and to bring attention to the struggle that Shea was facing. Over the coming months we organised a public demand of the wages; handed out information about this situation to folks walking by the cafe; as well as raised over $200 for Shea by opening a temporary “Justice Cafe” on the same corner. For more details around this campaign, check out the details here.
While this was all happening, we contacted the Employment Standards Legal Advocacy Project (ESLAP) to file a legal complaint against Marla as the owner of Wild Coffee. In our meeting this month with the Employment Standards Branch, we will go over all of the details as to why Shea is owed these wages and present our evidence. Out of respect for Shea’s requests and directions, we took a slowdown in our public campaigning and picketing at Wild Coffee during this time.
Exploitation as a Standard
The practice of exploiting workers in this region has become so common that it comes across as a shock to both employers and fellow employees when we question it. In my own experience working in retail and restaurants I’ve often, yet reluctantly, accepted the exploitative practices that employers in this city regularly use:
- Shorting hours off of paycheques without justification
- Routinely sending out schedules the night before your next shift
- Scheduling on-call shifts and split shifts for convenience
- Handing out punishments by arbitrarily cutting shifts or reducing hours
- Firing their least favourite employees without cause at the end of the busy season
- Refusing to pay overtime, holiday pay, or for mandatory staff meetings
- Taking a cut of gratuities
- Enforcing discriminatory dress codes and employment practices.
These practices have become so common that they essentially become invisible, and it is difficult to challenge these practices when they become accepted as industry standards.
Equally troubling is that many of these practices are condoned by the existing Employment Standards in BC by not offering workers any protections specific to these issues.
In BC, workers are often left to fight for themselves and to challenge their employer directly, as there is very little assistance offered by the Employment Standards Branch.
On top of all this, take into consideration the terrible power dynamic that exists between employer and employee. It is rare, and rather unreasonable to expect that anyone would question the practices of an employer while still working for them.
This power dynamic is often felt even after employment at a particular workplace. Workers often feel vulnerable to becoming blacklisted from future work, or from losing a much needed reference.
With the Employment Standards Act as it stands, it is very difficult for any worker to prove wrongdoing by an employer, to be successful in winning back lost wages, or to go through the 6 month process to win back $500 in wages. All regulatory bodies have been almost entirely dismantled and the BC Liberal government has done this with intention.
Support from the Employment Standards Branch did not happen until the end of June. It took about six months, but we finally had a mediation with Marla, facilitated the Employment Standards Branch. They were conducting an “investigation” into the dispute between Shea and Marla, which doesn’t involve much other than hearing both sides of the story. Through their investigtion, they will never find out who else had been paid below minimum wage at Wild Coffee; they will not go back and make sure that everyone gets paid for mandatory staff meetings or any missing hours from paycheques; and they won’t contact past employees to see if they too have been fired without cause or taken off of the schedule without notice.
The mediation ended fairly quickly, before any formal hearing. An agreement was made, and Marla is now paying out $453 in missing wages. A victory that took far too long to get to, however, a victory for Shea nonetheless.
As a new organization, we have learned a lot about how this process works. There is very little support for workers that rely on Employment Standards for protections. With that said, it has been incredibly important that we have been a part of this fight through the Retail Action Network. Looking back to when we first met up with Shea in early January; it was a time when her last paycheque was still owed to her and she had no idea that she had been shorted hours, paid less than minimum wage, and should be paid out one week of severance.
Now we wonder, how many other stories like this are happening every day here in Victoria? Contact our Facebook page or email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) to send us an anonymous tip, story, or suggestion.
This article is written in appreciation of Shea: For the courage that she has showed, and for following through with this fight from beginning to end.