B.C. fishing company ordered to pay deckhand $15K despite confiscated catch
'If you go to work and your employer is doing something wrong, you still expect to get paid for it'
A B.C. fishing company has been ordered to pay one of its deckhands $14,846 even though fisheries officials seized most of the catch.
The B.C. Employment Standards Tribunal recently dismissed the company's appeal of the decision, which the director of employment standards made in July 2017, to pay deckhand Steve Hrad for a fishing trip off the B.C. coast last spring.
Hrad had been hired by Lasota Fishing Ltd. — represented at the tribunal by Steve Lasota.
"I'm not very happy about it," Lasota told CBC News.
Some say it sets a troubling precedent in an industry where the margins are slim and the payout is based on shares of actual profit.
"You're not hired for a wage, you're hired to share in the catch. So you can't very well share in a catch that's been confiscated," said Jim McIsaac, coordinator of the B.C. Commercial Fishing Caucus.
Others applaud the decision, saying workers should be paid regardless of whether their employer makes money.
"If you go to work and your employer is doing something wrong, you still expect to get paid for it — and that's no different for fishermen," said Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fishermen And Allied Workers' Union.
Catch sold at auction
According to the decision, Hrad verbally agreed to work in exchange for 10 per cent of the trip's net landed catch of halibut, sable fish and ling cod — some of the priciest catch on the market.
But when the vessel landed in Richmond, B.C., the Department of Fisheries and Oceans seized most of the catch. It sold at auction for $151,237.
Lasota and other crew members are facing multiple charges related to illegal fishing. Hrad was cleared of any charges.
The auction proceeds are currently being held pending the outcome of the court case.
The deckhand claimed he was owed more than $15,000 based on the auction, minus the $500 plus the few expenses he was actually paid.
The director of employment standards, who made the original decision last July, agreed.
"[The seizure] does not impact the complainant's entitlement ... to be paid the wages for the work he performed," the decision said.
Lasota didn't get to offer his side of the events during the original three-week investigation because, he told the tribunal, he was away on a long fishing trip at the time.
He filed an appeal and argued that Hrad's payout was "way too much for one trip" and the deckhand would have been paid $4,000 at most.
But tribunal member Shafik Bhalloo dismissed the appeal, determining that Lasota should have presented his case during the investigation.
Bhalloo said the company should have monitored its mail and phone messages while Lasota was away, and it was not the concern of the tribunal if he didn't.
McIsaac, coordinator of the of the B.C. Commercial Fishing Caucus, noted it's uncommon for a crew to be paid for seized catch.
"That's precedent setting, there's no doubt about it," McIsaac said.
Fishermen almost always get paid as members in a shared venture, he explained and not as employees.
Both McIsaac and Thorkelson found it odd that the tribunal didn't deduct expenses from the gross value of the catch, since Hrad had agreed to 10 per cent of its net value.
Crew usually agree to expenses like gas, bait and ice, McIsaac said. The largest expense would be the lease for the fishing quota, which could cost as much as $8 per pound — often leaving crew with as little as $1 per pound to share.
'An honest fisherman'
Hrad contacted CBC News after this story was published to explain that expenses like gas and bait were, in fact, deducted from the catch that wasn't seized — claims supported by the paperwork he provided.
As for the lease expenses, Hrad said he thought Lasota owned his own quota. Hrad described himself as a seasoned fisherman who would never work on a boat that didn't because the margins — and the payout — would be too thin.
He described himself as "an honest fisherman" who often works 20 hours a day when he's out at sea. He said the amount is hardly a windfall, pointing out he only has work six months of the year.
Fishing company owner Lasota told CBC News that he intends to pay the deckhand what the tribunal ordered — but he'll be more careful in the future.
"I just want to put it behind me and not let that happen again," he said.