Hard work, long hours, little pay: Building super says she was paid $1.18 an hour

As part of our Hard at Work series, CBC News is looking at how employees in Ontario could benefit from proposed changes to the Employment Standards act. This Hamilton building superintendent tells of the long hours that come with the job.

CBC's 'Hard at Work' series examines what problems workers in Ontario face today

Rasma Pludums says she was essentially expected to be on call 24 hours a day as an building superintendent in downtown Hamilton. (Adam Carter/CBC)

It was just after lugging scores of heavy garbage cans through the Hamilton apartment building where she worked in May 2014 that building superintendent Rasma Pludums realized that she'd had enough.

It had been four months of brutally long hours and hard work like she had never endured, overseeing two buildings in Hamilton's downtown core.

Pludums says she and her husband were both working about 15 to 18 hours a day, for the equivalent of about $1.18 an hour.

That almost seems impossible — but thanks to exemptions in Ontario's Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act for jobs like hers, it was indeed possible.

"You tell me anywhere in this country where you can survive on $1.18 an hour," Pludums said. "Classifications need to be equal across the board."

If I had to choose between that job again and sleeping on a park bench, I'd pick the bench.- Rasma Pludums

As part of our Hard at Work series, CBC News is looking at how employees in Ontario could benefit from proposed changes to the Employment Standards act. We first told you about the changes that could overhaul workplace rules in Ontario in February.

Since then, thousands of people have commented on the stories and hundreds more have written to us with their workplace horror stories.

Pludums is one of those people. She and her husband, David Dunn, took jobs as the building superintendents for a building in downtown Hamilton in February of 2014. When she contacted CBC, she said she had worked one stretch of 45 straight days.

Constant overtime pressure

She had been on disability because of Fibromyalgia and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and was looking for a job that she thought she could handle.

A residential superintendent position for an apartment complex seemed like the perfect fit for both her and her husband, she said. Alongside getting an apartment in the building, she would also be close to home.

"Things for the first week or so seemed okay," she said. But then, problems started to pile up as she realized the full extent of her duties. Between cleaning, upkeep and maintenance, "we were working about 18 hours a day, some less, some more," she said.

Rasma Pludums on her former job

5 years ago
Duration 0:35
The CBC's 'Hard at Work' series takes a look at the problems Ontario workers face today.

And that included phone calls at 3 a.m. for problems with apartment units, which she was expected to answer at any time, she says.

"As a residential superintendent, you are basically on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said.

Pludums contacted provincial employment standards to see what she could do about her workload, and was told that what was happening was technically legal, because of exemptions in the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act.

Under Ontario's employment laws, some rules, including those governing overtime, don't apply to certain types of jobs. Those exemptions apply to managers, janitors, IT professionals, residential care workers, and yes, building superintendents.

"I felt like a second class citizen," she said. "My parents would have been rolling over in their graves."

Province examining changes

But change could be on the horizon. The province's Changing Workplaces Review is examining just about everything related to labour law in this province, including sick pay, overtime, how workers can join unions and employers' responsibilities to contract workers.

It could trigger the most significant reforms to the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act since Mike Harris was premier.

"The world of work that I went into as a young man is not the world of work that young people are going into today," Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said in an previous interview with CBC News. "We need to make sure that the regulations are protecting the most vulnerable."

The review is focusing on the new realities of the millennial workforce, including the spread of part-time and contract work. Noting that the province's current employment laws were drawn up in the 1990s, Flynn said they "need to be updated for the world of 2017."

Judy Travis, the executive director of Workforce Planning Hamilton, said there is a definite need for the province to step in and update the standards to "bring some balance back into people's lives."

"Employment standards are supposed to ensure a level playing field for the worker," she said. "But when someone calls you up and says 'my toilet is overflowing,' you can't really say, 'sorry, I'm not working right now.'"

Pludums only lasted four months at her building superintendent job, and has since moved out of the building.

She says that the government absolutely needs to step in and do something about the current legislation.

"With this, you are essentially telling people that they're second class citizens, and that's wrong," she said. "If I had to choose between that job again and sleeping on a park bench, I'd pick the bench.

"And people wonder why superintendents are surly."