Employees at Your Independent Grocer store in Surrey, B.C., are reeling after being told they owe tens of  thousands of dollars in mistaken overpayments.

The store is a franchise that is part of the massive Loblaw Companies chain. About 20 workers had opted for a one-time lump sum compensation payment, in exchange for agreeing to new limits on their wages and benefits.

But Loblaws says it mistakenly paid them too much and is demanding immediate repayment, under threat of legal action.

"It's bullying, it's a scare tactic, it seems," said Connor Greenwell, a part-time worker using her salary to pay off her college debt.

"It's a drop in the bucket for them. But for us … this is over 14 weeks' pay for me that they're asking back."

Workers demand Loblaws drop claim

Greenwell had agreed to take a lump sum when Loblaws converted the Extra Foods store where she worked into a Your Independent Grocer franchise and sought a rollback in her salary and benefits.

Loblaws employees

Christine Estok, Daniel Mack and Connor Greenwell (left to right) objected to being asked to pay for Loblaws' mistake. (CBC)

She said she and other employees jumped at the chance.

"Doing the math and taking into account the wage loss, the medical, the RRSP, this amount was going to cover that for quite some time," she said.

With nine years on the job, Greenwell agreed to receive $15,000 from Loblaws in exchange for a wage cut and limits on her benefits. She and her store manager signed a contract, and in February Loblaws transferred the money into her RRSP.

But five months later, she received a letter from Loblaws telling her she owes them $6,262.50 and must pay within 20 days or face legal proceedings.

Greenwell isn't alone. Her colleague Christine Estok also put her lump sum into an RRSP and is now being told she owes Loblaws $6,000.

"I had signed a contract saying I was receiving this money, so I don't know why they would break the contract," she said.

Their colleague Daniel Mack spent his compensation paying off his university tuition. He said he was shocked and angry when Loblaws demanded he pay back $2,300.

"Frankly the only way anybody is going to be satisfied with this is by [Loblaws] dropping it, and honestly, sending out a formal apology," he said.

'Error may have caused some inconvenience'

In response to a request for an interview from CBC News, Loblaws issued a written statement, saying it intends to recover the money from the employees.

"Due to a human miscalculation, we regret that a select few of our employees were recently overpaid," the company said. 

"While we understand this error may have caused some inconvenience, ‎we are working closely with each person to come to an agreeable repayment term."

Your Independent Grocer

Employees at Your Independent Grocer store in Surrey, B.C., agreed to take a lump sum payment in exchange for a wage cut and reduced benefits. (CBC)

Labour lawyer James Baugh believes the employees are within their rights to ignore Loblaws' repayment demands. "It's pretty heavy-handed," he said, noting there are protections in B.C.'s Employment Standards Act.

"The employees are entitled to say it's a done deal," he told CBC. "They have every right to say that the employer should have to stick by the original deal and shouldn't be able to turn around and try to change it now."

Win or lose, the employees say they're being forced to pay for Loblaws' mistake and the damage has been done.

"I'm angry, I have no trust for the company, I have no loyalty for the company anymore. It's all gone," said Greenwell.

"It would be hard to trust them again," said Estok.

"They just need to drop it. An apology would be nice."

Read the documents

Read the original offer from Loblaws.

Read the letter regarding overpayment sent to Connor Greenwell from Loblaws.

CBC News Investigates

If you have information on this or any other story CBC should investigate, email us: Investigate@cbc.ca

Follow @EricRankinCBC

With files from Paisley Woodward and Jennifer Sheppard