The sudden death of a 22-year-old Alberta practicum student, who crashed while driving home after being made to work long hours, has his loved ones pushing for laws to protect unpaid interns from exploitation.
"He was taken advantage of," said his brother Matt Ferguson, from St. Albert, Alta. "If this hadn’t happened the way it happened, it might be easier to deal with."
Andy Ferguson’s car crossed the centre line and hit a gravel truck head-on at 6 a.m. in November 2011. He was halfway through his hour-long commute after working a morning shift and then all night.
"Andy wouldn’t want this to happen to somebody else."
Records show the highway was clear and the weather was good. The young student had no alcohol or drugs in his system and was not on his phone when he crashed.
His family is convinced he didn’t make it home because he’d put in 16 hours in a 24-hour period — with very little rest in between shifts — and was too exhausted to drive safely.
"We believe he fell asleep while he was driving," said Ferguson.
Andy was a student in the radio and TV program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton.
He had to complete a four-month unpaid practicum for Astral Media’s local pop rock radio stations, ‘The Bear’ and ‘Virgin Radio’, in order to graduate. He was also putting in shifts as a paid intern, over and above his student hours.
"He just wanted to suck it up and he just wanted to finish his program and get it done with and he didn’t get the chance to do that," said his brother.
His brother said Andy was a much-loved, aspiring comedian.
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"One of his goals in life was just to make people laugh and make people happy," said Ferguson. "I can only dream of what he would have ended up doing with his life. I know it would have been great things."
Text messages and times in Andy’s phone suggest he worked erratic hours, with little notice or direction.
At the start of one early shift, Andy texted his girlfriend to say, "Good morning! Wouldn’t ya know it no one is here to tell me what to do. Good thinking on making me come in early!"
"He was there to learn and I don’t feel he got the opportunity to do that," said Ferguson.
Andy’s girlfriend, Caelie Crowley, said one of his supervisors regularly called him his "bitch."
"If he was being introduced to somebody else in the department they would be like ‘Oh yeah, this is Andy. But you can just call him my bitch,'" said Crowley.
Tried to say 'no'
Text messages the day before he died show Andy told Astral he didn’t want to work the overnight shift, supervising a Halloween contest, where a contestant would be locked in a coffin.
"F—k this place," Andy texted to a friend on the afternoon of Oct. 31, 2011. "He [a supervisor] asked me to do the overnight thing for the tough contest and I did the most blunt 'no' I could do."
"He had already worked three nights prior to that doing, like, overnight shifts," said Crowley. "And he just didn’t feel comfortable sitting in a hearse in a cemetery watching a girl in a coffin."
She said Andy told her a manager said if he didn't work that night, Astral wouldn’t give him the credit he needed to graduate.
"They said if you want to keep your practicum here…you basically shut your mouth and do what you are told," said Crowley.
In an email Andy wrote to a NAIT instructor, but never had a chance to send, he wrote, "it would be nice if the people I worked under showed a little more appreciation and respect for myself."
Text messages between Andy and his girlfriend on his last night show his frustration, and her concern for his well-being.
"How are you holding up?" she asks at one point. "Is everything going OK?" He replied, "Not really. Ha ha."
Later, he wrote, "Good night. I will be thinking of you…I love you forever and sweet dreams." That was his last message to her.
"He wasn’t the kind of person at all to say no," Crowley said, through tears. "It took a lot of me bugging him to say something [to his supervisors]."
Complaints led nowhere
After Andy’s death, Ferguson wrote to Astral’s CEO, but said he didn’t hear back. He also filed a complaint with federal labour authorities, claiming his brother was forced to work excessive hours without adequate rest.
Federal law governing broadcasters says employees can’t be made to work more than 48 hours a week.
There were discrepancies between Andy’s records and how long Astral said he worked. The case was further complicated because he was not paid for the hours he put in as a student, but did get paid for other shifts.
His student hours didn’t count, because the law doesn’t cover unpaid training. Federal investigators concluded the company was not in violation.
"Everyone at 100.3 The Bear, Virgin Radio 104.9, and Team 1260 was devastated by Andy’s death, and their condolences were extended to the family," said a statement to Go Public from Bell, which has since purchased Astra Media.
"Astral Media co-operated fully with the investigation by the Ministry of Labour, which found that the radio stations were compliant with the Canada Labour Code, and in Andy’s case, that the maximum hours of work were not exceeded."
Bell refused to answer questions about how Andy was treated by Astral, saying "no comment". It did say, however, that it applies best practices when dealing with its own interns.
NAIT also refused to answer questions about this, citing "privacy requirements."
MP takes up cause
"There is no doubt that he had worked considerable and I would suggest excessive hours in the days leading up to his unfortunate car accident," said Ferguson’s member of Parliament, Brent Rathbeger, who said he will use this case to push for change.
Labour rules in Alberta and other provinces also don’t cover unpaid work by students or interns in provincially regulated workplaces.
"The bargaining is not in the youth employees' favour. That needs to be addressed generally — both through provincial and federal regulations — to protect all employees but specifically youth," said Rathbeger.
The Canadian Intern Association said it hears many stories from young people who feel overworked.
"I hear about this frequently," said president Claire Seaborn. "High youth unemployment rates are making it very difficult, which may result in young interns working long hours and not feeling they can speak up about it."
This comes on the heels of a recent death in the U.K., where a young intern working for Merrill Lynch died after pulling three all-nighters in a row. Moritz Erhardt, from Germany, was found dead in his shower Aug. 15.
In that case, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said it is now reviewing "all aspects of working practices" for its young employees and interns.
Statement from Bell Media:
Everyone at 100.3 The Bear, Virgin Radio 104.9, and Team 1260 was devastated by Andy’s death, and their condolences were extended to the family.
Astral Media cooperated fully with the investigation by the Ministry of Labour, which found that the radio stations were compliant with the Canada Labour Code, and in Andy’s case, that the maximum hours of work were not exceeded.
While we consider the matter closed, we appreciate Matthew Ferguson’s campaign for protection for practicum students and interns. Bell Media adheres to best practices for our internship and student practicum placements, and we endeavour to provide a safe, positive, and rewarding experience for those beginning their careers in radio and television.
Statement from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT):
Andy’s death was a tragic loss for NAIT and for the Radio and Television program. Andy was a creative, passionate and dedicated student who is greatly missed.
Privacy requirements prevent NAIT from commenting further on a particular student.
The safety and security of our students is a priority for NAIT. NAIT regularly reviews policies, practices and curriculum. All NAIT’s agreements related to work integrated learning address compliance with Occupational Health and Safety and other employment legislation.