British Columbia

Hip Vancouver bar embroiled in bitter dispute over working conditions

The former chef of a hip Vancouver restaurant says a recent Employment Standards Tribunal decision is indicative of desperately needed changes in the service industry.

Former sous-chef says long hours and unpaid overtime are rampant throughout the industry

Crowbar is nestled among a row of hip restaurants in Vancouver's Kingsway and Fraser area. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

The former chef of a hip Vancouver restaurant says a recent Employment Standards Tribunal decision reveals the deep need for change in the service industry.

Last December, former Crowbar chef Christopher Scott, 33, filed a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch claiming he should have been paid for hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime at the East Vancouver bar and restaurant.

In May, the Director of Employment Standards ruled that Scott was owed $11,424 in overtime, holiday pay, annual vacation and interest. The restaurant was also fined $2,000.  

The restaurant's owner, William Johnson, appealed the decision, but the Employment Standards Tribunal recently dismissed that appeal.

In her decision, tribunal member Carol Roberts says Scott worked up to 14 hours a day, up to 20 days in a row — even though his wages were based on a 50-hour work week.

When asked in an interview if issues like unpaid overtime and long hours were factors in making it difficult to attract staff, Scott said "100 per cent."

Vancouver chef Chris Scott says the restaurant industry is ripe for change. (Chris Scott/Twitter)

Many in the restaurant industry say poor working conditions are rampant in even some of the most sought-after boutique eateries.

"I wish there wouldn't be a need for people to have to go through this process. I wish the industry would just change," Scott told CBC News.

Johnson's argument, noted in the tribunal decision and reiterated in an interview, was that he hired Scott as a chef to co-manage the kitchen alongside fellow chef Scott Korzack.

B.C.'s labour laws don't require managers to be paid overtime. 

The Director of Employment Standards and the tribunal member sided with Scott, the latter explaining in her decision that he was clearly an employee with little authority and decision-making capability.

Bitter dispute

The disagreement over Scott's overtime pay has led to an acrimonious dispute between Scott and Johnson that has gone on for months, both in the restaurant and subsequently before the tribunal. 

In an interview, Scott said when he was hired at Crowbar, an upscale bar nestled in a foodie enclave at Fraser and Kingsway, he was promised better conditions than many of the restaurants he has worked in over the past 15 years. 

His job, as he and the tribunal understood it, was to assist Korzack. As is noted in the tribunal decision, Scott was paid less than his colleague. 

Scott told CBC News the hours at the new restaurant quickly crept up, until he and Korzack were working longer and longer days.

"It just became more and more clear as we were going on that ... I was not going to be compensated," he said. 

The decision says Korzack corroborated these assertions as a witness during the tribunal process. 

'It's been hell'

But, in an interview, Johnson said he was upset with the ruling and he plans to appeal.

Johnson told CBC News Crowbar fulfilled a years-long dream of opening his own establishment after cobbling together money from investors and his parents.

He said that dream quickly turned into a nightmare after his relationship with Scott and Korzack began to sour. 

"It's been hell, to say the least," Johnson said, referring to the fallout. 

As a co-chef and manager, Johnson said, Scott was in charge of his own schedule. 

Managers vs employees

And as a manager, Scott wouldn't need to be paid overtime.

Labour lawyer Kelly Slade-Kerr said that's because, in theory, managers should have discretion over how to run a business, including how much time they put into their duties. 

But Slade-Kerr said the tribunal's decision clearly shows that Scott didn't have the same decision-making authority as Korzack. 

"What stands out is the importance of having a clear employment agreement in advance," she said.

The contract, which Johnson submitted as new evidence during the appeal process, included the following seven bullet points:

  • Make the best food possible.
  • Order the best possible ingredients.
  • Train and develop the best possible team. 
  • Develop the best possible menu.
  • Work and communicate well with all restaurant staff to ensure the best possible restaurant.
  • Clean up messes you make.
  • Be happy. 

In an interview, Johnson admitted the contract isn't as robust as it could be. But he maintained that he clearly laid out his expectations from both Scott and Korzack. 

'I wish the industry would just change'

Johnson says he intends to dispute the appeal decision.

He said that if the decision holds, he will pay the overtime — although he's not sure how, given that his restaurant is just starting to gain traction and most of his lines of credit are still maxed out.

In the meantime, Scott is still working as a chef, but in another restaurant. 

He isn't sure how much longer he'll stay in the industry, given the conditions, but he says more workers are speaking out and the industry is ripe for improvement. 

"If there is a problem, then people need to not be afraid to come forward about it," said Scott.

"These are not [labour] laws that are just put out there lightly. They're made for a reason."

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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