It’s Thursday, and for employees at Smiling Goat, a Halifax-based chain of coffee shops, it’s supposed to be pay day. But will the baristas at the company’s six locations actually receive their wages? According to allegations made by a slew of Smiling Goat employees, it’s unlikely. Staffers say they’ve gone unpaid for weeks–and that the company’s owner, Kit Singh, is stealing from them in other ways, too, including making payroll deductions for health insurance without actually providing coverage, and deducting income tax but failing to remit it to the government.
Hannah Carey, senior barista at one of Smiling Goat’s locations, says employees at their cafe started experiencing bounced cheques in early December 2017. “A variety of explanations and excuses have been given—[Singh’s] former accountant not having proper authorization to sign cheques, switching banks, temporary cheques having information incorrectly filled out. Since the first cheque bounced, at least one employee has had a bounced paycheque each pay period,” they say. Until recently, employees would receive a replacement cheque or an e-transfer, but even that stopped happening on February 22, when everyone’s cheques bounced—and so did the replacements.
What’s more, Carey is out hundreds because of unnecessary insurance deductions. “Nobody was ever actually set up with health coverage, so there’s no reason we should have had that money deducted from our pay. Using myself as an example, since those deductions started he has stolen a total of $232.10 from my wages.” (Carey hasn’t heard anything about missing income tax payments from the baristas at their location, but has heard of other Smiling Goat employees owing the government thousands in income tax, despite deductions being taken from their paycheques.)
What is wage theft, anyway?
What Smiling Goat’s employees say they’re experiencing is wage theft, which is “the withholding of wages, tips, commissions, bonuses or other forms of compensation owed to an employee by an employer,” says Andrew Langille, a lawyer and labour activist in Toronto. And, yes, it’s illegal.
But sadly, it’s also pretty common—especially for millennial workers. According to Carey, “90 percent of [their] workplace is queer and 50 percent is trans.” And an overwhelming majority are young, which puts them squarely in the group most likely to experience wage theft.
“Young people, particularly immigrant, female and racialized youths, are more likely to experience violations of their rights under provincial or federal workplace laws,” Langille explains. Employers are more likely to target members of historically marginalized groups, he says, because they tend to “have greater difficulties navigating the labour market and securing employment. Employers often think that their illegal acts will go unreported to the relevant authorities.”
That’s not what’s happening with the Smiling Goat baristas, though. First, they went public with their allegations of wage theft, setting up a sidewalk sign outside one of the locations to let customers know their paycheques were bouncing and holding a press conference to further spread the news. Then, in a move they hope will give them the leverage to hold Singh accountable, employees at four of the company’s six locations voted to unionize. (The other two, one of which is Carey’s workplace, were acquired last year and were already unionized.) And on March 31, they organized a protest to put even more pressure on him.
What can employees do?
If you think you’ve experienced wage theft, Langille says the most important thing you can do is get legal advice, ASAP—especially if your employer is talking about your contract of employment. “Be cautious if an employer indicates that you’re an independent contractor, which has significant implications for Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan contributions, taxation and workplace protections,” he says. “Oftentimes, employers misclassify young workers as independent contractors.”
Langille’s other tips: keep a record of all interactions with your employer or supervisors. Keep hard copies at home of all information, emails, documents, your initial job application and any feedback you receive. Keep a daily log of your duties, start and end times and breaks. And, ask that any remuneration occur via cheque or direct deposit, and make sure you request pay stubs for each pay period.
One thing Smiling Goat employees won’t do, though? Quit.
“There are a lot of reasons that I still work at Smiling Goat,” Carey says, citing Halifax’s competitive job market, where it’s hard to find work, especially work that’s not precarious. But they have another reason, too. “Me and my coworkers, past and present, have worked very hard to create a situation where we are able to stand up and fight back. To quit now would be to allow Kit to hire new workers, likely with no experience with the labour movement, to exploit and steal from as he wishes. I don’t want him to be able to avoid accountability—I want to get paid, and I want all current and future workers to as well.”
FLARE reached out to Singh for comment, but did not hear back by press time.
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