British Columbia

Restaurant staff claim they're owed $13K — but face long fight for fairness, advocate says

Former workers at a Kerrisdale restaurant say they are owed $13,000 in wages and tips from their bosses. Two have filed complaints with the Employment Standards Branch but an advocate says cases like these expose weak protections afforded many workers.

Bosses named by employees blame each other for non-payment of workers

A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Labour confirmed it is investigating five complaints filed by ex-employees of Senova restaurant. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Latest

  • After this story was published, Kashmir Gill paid Damir Mollnar $7,500 and Michael Narvey $3,500
  • Narvey said he is still pursuing his alleged remaining $1,000 from Varatharajah (Roger) Rasiah
  • Rasiah denies that he owes Narvey any money
  • Mollnar said he has dropped his Employment Standards Branch complaint

Damir Mollnar has been working in restaurants for 30 years but he's never seen a situation like this.

Mollnar, 58, is a former server at Senova, an upscale Italian restaurant in Vancouver's Kerrisdale neighbourhood, where he alleges he is owed three months' worth of wages and tips.

"If you go and you work really hard for someone you deserve to be paid, to be rewarded for what you are giving," Mollnar said.

Mollnar has filed a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch, B.C.'s tribunal for employer-employee disputes. He claims $8,500 in pay owed and said the loss of income has been devastating.

Damir Mollnar said he was reluctant to leave Senova because he feared as an older worker, it would be hard for him to find another food service job. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

"I almost feel like, oh my god, I'm gonna be a homeless person," he said.

A former co-worker, Michael Narvey, has also filed a claim. The former server, host and bartender is seeking $4,500 for three months of work.

"It really bothered me," Narvey, 66, stated, adding he has had to dip into his savings to make ends meet.

Senova is still in operation. Mollnar worked there from April 2012 until July 2019. Narvey was employed there on-and-off from 2013 to 2019, most recently working from January to July of this year.

Mollnar and Narvey said they are missing two paycheques, and were given a third, unsigned paycheque.

Michael Narvey said he felt taken advantage of when his employers allegedly would not pay him for their work. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The issue is aggravated by the fact that the two people listed in the men's complaints as their bosses, Kashmir Gill and Varatharajah "Roger" Rasiah, appear locked in a bitter dispute with each other.

In separate conversations, each blamed the other for the employees' non-payment. Gill also disputed the amount they were owed.

The dispute reveals how vulnerable workers are when small business disputes erupt, said Eric Nordal of the Retail Action Network, which advocates for workers in fields like retail and food service.

Fighting for the money through the branch, Nordal said, could take months or even a year.

Waits like that are unacceptable, he added, and cases like Mollnar and Narvey's highlight weak protections afforded many workers in B.C.

Bosses respond

A spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Labour confirmed its Employment Standards Branch is investigating five complaints by Senova employees.

She added four other complaints were filed against the business from 2013 to 2017. All were resolved through mediation. CBC News was unable to ascertain the nature of those complaints.

Varatharajah "Roger" Rasiah is named in the complaints. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

As for Senova, only Gill appears on a corporate registry document as the company's sole director.

Rasiah said he had paycheque-signing authority, was deeply involved with the restaurant and was a business partner of Gill's.

He said he has filed his own complaint with the branch, seeking $28,000 in back pay for working as a chef at a different restaurant she owned.

Weak protections

Nordal, of the Retail Action Network said disputes between business partners are not unheard of, and workers are often the ones who suffer.

"We've seen a lot of these with smaller businesses," Nordal explained. "At the end of the day, there's a business number and somebody's writing the cheque... That person can be named and is responsible."

He said even if Narvey and Mollnar receive a determination from the branch that they are owed money, they could find themselves waiting up to a year or more before they collect.

Narvey, for instance, said it took two months for the branch to even acknowledge receipt of his complaint.

Nardal's organization is also critical of what it says is an inability from the branch to collect wages owed to workers, even in the face of a formal determination, because the branch's collections unit is not strong enough.

It said of the $23 million in determinations made by the branch from 2013 to 2017, only $8 million was ultimately collected by workers.

Tired of waiting

Labour Minister Harry Bains was not available for an interview, but in a statement, a ministry spokesperson highlighted reforms to help workers get the wages and tips they are owed.

The Employment Standards Branch budget was increased $14 million in the last budget and 20 new employees have been hired including for a dedicated collections unit.

Still, for Mollnar and Narvey, it's been a frustrating process.

"I just know things like this are happening to other places," Mollnar said. "I think something really needs to be done."

They may have lots of experience as servers, but in this situation, they're tired of waiting.

With files from Ethan Sawyer

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