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'Greed is not OK': Backlash grows against Tim Hortons worker benefit cuts

The backlash against both Tim Hortons and individual franchise owners continues to rage after some owners cut employee benefits to offset Ontario’s minimum wage hike. Critics claim the chain needs to take a stand on the issue or risk losing customers.

Critics claim Tim Hortons needs to take a stand on the issue or risk losing customers

More than a dozen protests are planned today at Tim Hortons locations in Ontario. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The backlash against both Tim Hortons and individual franchise owners continues to rage after some owners cut employee benefits to offset Ontario's minimum wage hike.

The restaurant chain's Facebook page has been flooded with hundreds of angry comments from customers, and protests are taking place today at several Tim Hortons outlets in Ontario to demand employees get their benefits back.

"It's definitely hurting Tim Hortons' image," said retail expert Bruce Winder about the growing backlash. "This could really multiply into something significant."

He believes if the coffee shop giant doesn't take action soon to address the issue, it risks losing loyal customers.

"They need to get in front of this. Whenever there's a crisis, you can't put your head in the sand."

Workers at nearly a dozen Tim Hortons outlets across Ontario — including in Cobourg and Whitby — have told CBC News that store owners are cutting employee perks like paid breaks and benefits in response to January's minimum wage increase to $14 an hour.

A protest at a Tim Hortons in downtown Toronto on Tuesday morning. (CBC)

"It's bullying and not fair," said Navi Aujla, from the Workers' Action Centre, who protested this morning outside a Toronto Tim Hortons. 

"Just because they're being paid a minimum wage that will allow them to survive, now you're going to take back other things?" she said. "That is just unethical."​

Aujla joins many labour activists holding protests today at Tim Hortons locations across Ontario, including in Toronto, Ottawa, Cobourg, Windsor, London, and Hamilton. 

A protest at a Whitby location is planned for Saturday.

Navi Aujla with Workers' Action Centre stands outside a Toronto Tim Hortons to protest employee benefit cutbacks at some locations. (CBC)

The Durham Region Labour Council helped organize both the Cobourg and Whitby protest. Member Tiffany Balducci said the aim is to support Tim Hortons employees by demanding they get back whatever benefits they've lost.

"We want to send a clear message to Tim Hortons to treat their workers with respect," she said.

"Greed is not OK. Don't take something away from your workers who are making the lowest wage legally possible."

Meanwhile, many Tim Hortons customers have taken to Facebook to express their outrage.

Some are demanding a boycott of the chain with grassroots campaigns such as "No Timmys Tuesday," where customers are encouraged to buy their coffee elsewhere that day.

A social media movement is encouraging people to boycott Tim Hortons on Tuesdays. (Facebook)

"With this crappy attitude to your minimum pay workers, I'll be boycotting Tim Hortons until this situation is clearly rectified," posted one customer.

But even with the protests today, plenty of customers still lined up to get their morning fix at the coffee shop.

Several people at one Toronto location told CBC News that while they support the plight of Tim Hortons workers, they aren't boycotting the chain at this point.

"It's a good company," said cab driver Farooq Amani who bought a tea during his morning break. "It's fresh, nice, everything's gorgeous."

Cab driver Farooq Amani says he supports the plight of Tim Hortons workers but won't be boycotting the coffee shop chain. (CBC)

Both Tim Hortons and The Great White North Franchisee Association (GWNFA), which represents a number of Canadian Tim Hortons franchise owners, declined to comment on the issue.

However, last week, GWNFA defended employee benefit rollbacks, stating with the minimum wage hike, franchise owners face increased labour costs because head office won't let them raise prices.

Tim Hortons' owner, multinational Restaurant Brands International (RBI) shot back by blaming the recent uproar on a "rogue group" of franchise owners who "do not reflect the values of our brand."

RBI also told CBC News last week that individual franchise owners are responsible for handling all employment matters.

Time to take a stand?

Many critics are not satisfied with RBI's response and are demanding that the company take charge.

"I know the parent company is saying 'Oh, it's these rogue franchise owners,'" says Balducci. "But I think the parent company should hold the franchise owners responsible, definitely, and set guidelines."

That sentiment is echoed by some customers on Facebook. "Dear Tim Hortons, I'm more than happy to pay an extra ten cents for my coffee for your employees to get a better wage," posted one person.

Regardless of who's to blame for the Tim Hortons backlash, retail expert Winder says RBI needs to show customers it's taking action on the matter — or else continue to face what's growing into a public relations nightmare.

"People are emotionally attached to Tims, and when they see that Tims is treating workers badly or not treating them fairly, people get up in arms," said Winder, a co-founder of the Retail Advisors Network, a consultancy firm in Toronto.

"They need to get out in front of Canadians, with whatever strategy they have, and say they're sorry and say here's what we're going to do."

However, Winder admits that RBI is in a tough spot. That's because if it raises prices, that move could also anger customers who don't want to pay more for Tim Hortons products. 

"Sadly, Tim Hortons has kind of painted themselves into a corner now where, if they raise prices, they look bad, [and] if they don't raise prices and this continues, they look bad."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter sophia.harris@cbc.ca

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto where she produces for national TV news and writes and shoots and edits video for CBC.ca. Twitter: @sophiaharrisCBC

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