One Toronto business isn't waiting around for the government to move on changes to labour laws in Ontario — it's taking matters into its own hands and relying on customers to help pay for employee benefits.

Emma's Country Kitchen, a popular brunch spot near St. Clair Avenue West and Bathurst Street, will start adding a three per cent surcharge to all bills starting Monday. The monies raised from the charge will pay for part of the benefits of their employees, which are set to start in June.

"We could either raise our prices or add a surcharge like this," said Heather Mee, co-owner of Emma's. "We felt this was a very transparent and accountable way to charge more."

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Heather Mee, co-owner at Emma's Country Kitchen, says implementing a surcharge on customer bills was a transparent way to help pay for employee benefits. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC News)

The owner estimates it will add $0.43 to the average customer's bill, but says all patrons will have the option to opt out if they wish. There will be a note about the surcharge on the menu and on the restaurant's website.

Mee said she always wanted to have a business where employees felt valued and enjoyed a safe and healthy environment — she adds that "benefits are part of that." 

Mee says the surcharge won't fully cover the plan but that employees will receive benefits no matter how much money is collected from the fee.

Roupen Agnerian, one of the cooks at Emma's Country Kitchen, says in the several years he's been working in restaurants, he's never received benefits. 

"I'm happily surprised they're pushing for this," Agnerian told CBC Toronto. 

"It's great. It means I get benefits, which is exceedingly rare in the service industry."

Mixed feelings about surcharge

But customers at the restaurant had mixed feelings about the surcharge.

Some said they would happily pay the surcharge, whereas others, like Earl Pastko, said the option to provide employees benefits shouldn't really be left up to patrons.

"I'm not sure the public should be presented with such an option, either it should be implemented by the establishment, or it shouldn't," he said, adding it seemed odd to him and that he would have preferred prices to go up.

Deena Ladd, executive director at the Workers Action Centre, said the move left her "speechless" and she believes it won't actually help employees in the long run because customers will just likely leave fewer tips — cutting into the server's bottom line.

"A lot of people are going to see this as a contribution to people's tip money," said Ladd, adding that it will likely just put extra stress on the employees and "they're going to have to deal with that issue on every single bill the customer gets."

Though the intent to do good was there, if the employer really believed in benefits for its employees, they could have raised their prices three per cent, Ladd said. 

"It shouldn't be a crime to be sick," she said. "For a restaurant that is providing food and needs to have healthy employees, they should be providing benefits."

Changes to employment law coming

A review of the province's labour laws and the Employment Standards Act (ESA) has been in the works for nearly two years, with many issues like benefits and sick pay being studied. With the final report due this spring, the changes could trigger the most significant reforms to the Ontario workplace since Mike Harris was premier. 

Currently, the ESA does not require employers to provide benefit plans — it only prohibits discrimination where benefit plans are provided by employers. 

Some of the recommendations in the government's interim report include a requirement to pay part-time and full-time employees the same wage, and to be given equal benefits.

The government says it is actively reviewing the recommendations as they come in and is determining next steps — which could include legislation and regulatory changes.

With files from Ali Chiasson