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Long delays and rising cases deny B.C. workers justice, say critics

The province’s Employment Standards Branch has been unable to keep up with a jump in claims.
Almost half of workers are waiting more than six months to have their complaints resolved by the Employment Standards Branch.

The agency tasked with protecting the rights of British Columbian workers is overwhelmed, observers say, leaving some workers waiting  months or years to settle disputes with employers. 

B.C.’s Employment Standards  Branch has seen a spike in the number and complexity of complaints that  have dramatically slowed its response times since 2019. 

Pamela Charron, the interim executive director of the Worker Solidarity Network,  is among advocates calling on the provincial government to dramatically  increase the branch’s budget, arguing current delays have left  vulnerable workers without a clear path to recouping unpaid wages or  other money. 

“We know that workers are waiting over a year to recover thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Charron. 

“A low wage worker missing  one day’s pay could be crucial to whether they can make ends meet or pay  rent at the end of the month.” 

The Employment Standards  Branch is a non-judicial body that administers and enforces the  province’s labour laws, including standards around the minimum wage,  overtime, severance and payment of employees. 

In 2017, the branch received 4,400  complaints. But in 2019, the number spiked to 7,617 — an increase of  more than 75 per cent. The higher rate has continued since then.

At the same time, the branch’s response time tanked and it consistently failed to resolve complaints within its own timelines.

In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the Ministry of  Labour reported the branch resolved more than 90 per cent of complaints  within six months. In 2022, that fell to 51 per cent, well below the  ministry’s benchmark target of 85 per cent. 

David Fairey, the co-chair of the BC  Employment Standards Coalition, says the rise in cases was likely  sparked by a government decision to abandon “self-help” kits the branch  once required workers to complete before they submitted a complaint. 

Fairey said that’s a good thing because he  believes those kits were unnecessarily complicated and likely  discouraged workers from continuing with the process. 

But he says the subsequent rise in  complaints, which may have been exacerbated by a wave of layoffs at the  start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has overwhelmed an office he argues was  already understaffed. 

The Ministry of Labour was not able to  provide an average wait time for affected workers. But anecdotally,  Fairey says it can take months to have an initial conversation with a  case worker at the branch and potentially years to conduct an  investigation if a resolution cannot be reached before. 

One worker in a medical profession told The  Tyee they waited about 18 months between when they filed a complaint  about allegedly unpaid wages and when they first heard back from the  board. That employee asked they not be named out of concern for career  repercussions. 

Fairey argues the current wait times mean  workers who cannot afford to take their employer to court will simply  give up on the process. 

 “If you’ve filed a complaint, you’ve  waited six months to be contacted and then two years later they do an  investigation — you’ll never go through that again,” Fairey said.

The branch has  given a budget of $14  million this fiscal year, the same as the previous year but a marked  increase from the roughly $7.9 million the branch spent in the 2016-17  fiscal year. 

Labour Minister Harry Bains was not immediately available for an interview. 

But on background, members of his office  noted the branch now responds to more than 100,000 questions from  employees and employers each year in multiple languages, on top of its  workload resolving complaints. 

Sussanne Skidmore is the president of the  BC Federation of Labour, which represents unions with a collective  membership of more than half a million. She says the backlog of cases  also reflects the rising complexity of complaints, which may involve  temporary foreign workers or people working for companies like Uber  which do not consider their drivers to be employees. 

Recent years have seen a growing number of  temporary foreign workers in B.C. for example, who must register with  the Employment Standards Branch before they can apply to the federal  government for a work permit. 

And the branch also covers vulnerable  employees like temporary agricultural workers, who come to B.C. for a  few months at a time to harvest crops and often rely on their employer  for housing. 

“I think the issues have become more complex,” Skidmore said. 

Issues with the branch are not new, she  said. In 2001, the BC Liberal government of the day slashed the branch’s  funding and closed many of its physical offices. 

Skidmore notes governments have  occasionally bumped up the branch’s funding, sometimes with short-term  top-ups, but that it has never recovered to its former level.  “We know  that it’s been underfunded ever since that happened and we have way more  workers in this province than we did 20 years ago,” Skidmore said. 

Fairey is among those who believes the branch’s funding should be doubled. 

“They just need more money. There’s no question about it,” Fairey said.

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

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