British Columbia

Wait times for worker complaints in B.C. unacceptable, advocates say

In 2019 a legal advocate filed a complaint with the B.C. Employment Standards Branch on behalf of a client in her sixties who had lost her job of more than 30 years. More than a year later, that client is dead, and the branch has yet to look at her case.

B.C.'s labour minister says the province is working to fix backlog at Employment Standards Branch

Sharlene Wilson, third from left, with her husband Richard Wilson and their two daughters. Sharlene lost her job in the fall of 2019 and filed a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch. She died before she ever heard back about her case. (Submitted by Richard Wilson)

Prince Rupert resident Sharlene Wilson was in her early 60s when she lost her job of more than 30 years in October 2019. 

A month later, legal advocate Paul Lagace with the Prince Rupert Unemployed Action Centre filed a complaint with the B.C. Employment Standards Branch on her behalf, arguing she should be entitled to eight weeks' severance. 

More than a year later, Wilson is dead, and the branch has yet to look at her case. Lagace is now acting on behalf of her estate.

"I'm so frustrated and I'm tired of the runaround," Lagace said. 

'Severe stress' on workers

The Employment Standards Branch is the service that oversees B.C.'s Employment Standards Act. It deals with complaints like severance, working conditions and lost wages.

Legal advocates like Lagace say wait times at the branch have become unacceptable, especially given that many of the people who file complaints are low-wage workers with no other recourse. 

David Madiros, a lawyer with Kent Employment Law, says his clients have had to wait 10 months or longer before the branch will even touch their case.

Employment lawyer David Madiros says low-wage service industry workers are often the ones who need to rely on the services of B.C.'s Employment Standards Branch. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

"It puts a severe stress on people," Madiros said. "Many people who are in the service industry or who are hourly wage workers don't have a lot of a cushion to fall back on."

Madiros says he advises his clients to take their matters to B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal for small claims when possible. But he says some cases have to be filed through the Employment Standards Branch.

Backlog due to pandemic, increased services

Lagace says even trying to just call the branch for an update has become unbearable, with wait times of two hours or more.

In a written statement, B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains admits there is a backlog of complaints. 

Although it's been more than three years since they were in power, Bains blames it on the previous Liberal government. 

Hourly wage earners like construction workers also depend on the Employment Standards Branch. Common disputes include overtime and severance pay. (Olivier Hyland/Radio-Canada)

"In 2017, our government inherited a system that was failing to serve workers," Bains said in the statement.

Other reasons the ministry gave for the backlog include the elimination of the branch's self-help kits in 2019, doubling the time to submit a complaint to a year, the new inclusion of temporary foreign workers and, of course, the pandemic.

"I think everyone understands that COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on British Columbians," Bains said. "The pandemic has certainly contributed to the increase in worker complaints coming into the branch."

Complaints nearly double in 4 years

The ministry says the Employment Standards Branch received about 7,700 complaints in 2020, compared to 4,260 complaints in 2016. 

But legal advocate Lagace says Wilson's case was filed months before the pandemic was declared.

Regardless of what's causing the problem, Lagace says, wait times of more than a year to even get a case started, let alone resolved, is unacceptable for the people who rely on the Employment Standards Branch for lost wages.

'It was very difficult'

Wilson's husband, Henry Richard Wilson, says waiting to find out about her severance put a lot of stress on his wife, who died in June from heart surgery complications. 

"Just seeing her reaction to her job was extremely devastating," Wilson said. "It was very difficult."

Wilson, a stroke survivor, says waiting to hear about his wife's case has been frustrating, and a resolution would help put him and his two daughters at ease. 

Lagace wants the Labour Ministry to apologize to Wilson, and make significant changes at the branch so cases like hers can be expedited. 

Bains says in 2019 the ministry did invest an additional $14 million in the branch over three years, including hiring 35 more staff, streamlining processes and triaging cases.