Baristas at Smiling Goat coffee chain vote to unionize, say they're victims of 'wage theft'

Workers at four Halifax coffee shops, part of the Smiling Goat chain, have voted to unionize after they say they've gone weeks without being paid.

Multiple staffers say they've experienced missing or bounced checks

A group of Smiling Goat coffee shop workers held a news conference Friday to speak about their employer's refusal to pay them and their decision to unionize. (CBC)

Workers at four Halifax coffee shops, part of the Smiling Goat chain, have voted to unionize after they say they've gone weeks without being paid.

A group of employees spoke Friday about what they called "wage theft" after their paycheques started bouncing. Over 45 paycheques have bounced since September, the union estimates.

CBC News spoke to a dozen employees in total who all said they've had at least one cheque bounce.

The baristas are now part of the Service Employees International Union, a North American organization that has about two million members. 

"I am owed over $1,700 in unpaid wages. I'm blowing through my savings trying to pay rent and feed myself. I'm terrified about what happens when my savings start to dwindle," said Emerson Roach, who has worked for Smiling Goat for three years. 

Since December, Roach says six cheques were all returned because of insufficient funds. 

The 18 workers at four non-unionized Smiling Goat locations, owned by businessman Kit Singh, will now join approximately 20 unionized workers from two other locations formerly owned by Just Us!. Singh bought those Just Us! cafes in Halifax and Dartmouth in September 2017. 

The problems with pay got public attention earlier this week when employees wrote about their plight on a sign outside one of the Smiling Goat locations in downtown Halifax. There are five on peninsular Halifax and one at Dartmouth's Kings Wharf.

The company's Facebook page says it is planning to open another location on Washmill Lake Drive, near Clayton Park.

Employees at a Smiling Goat coffee shop in Halifax let customers know about their paycheques bouncing. (CBC)

The cafe workers who had been unionized prior to this week were entitled to health care benefits, which they say they haven't received since November.

"I'm struggling to pay for my life-saving asthma medication," Roach said. "I am racking up hundreds of dollars in medical costs. Soon I will have to start choosing between paying for rent and paying for the medication that literally keeps air in my lungs."

The union said it has filed a grievance with the Nova Scotia Labour Board about the bounced cheques. It also has a grievance before the board regarding employees who were not given records of employment.

Employees said they have been given a litany of reasons for the lack of pay.

Smiling Goat owner Kit Singh is said to be out of the country and could not be reached for comment. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Logan Lefort recently started working at the Smiling Goat and said he has yet to receive any pay.

"I've never been paid. I'm owed near $1,200 in wages I've never received. I've contacted my boss in order to receive these wages and have been greeted with him just ignoring me … he's since attempted to fire me." Lefort said. 

CBC News has tried multiple times to reach Singh to discuss the allegations but has not heard back. On Friday, phones at Smiling Goat coffee shops were not being answered.

The union said Singh is on vacation and was expected to return Friday.

CBC News also spoke to several former employees who said they had to fight to get paid.

Dana-Lynn Farrell, who started working at the coffee shop in December, said employees were told not to call in sick and taking breaks was discouraged.

"The paycheques would all just be handwritten, chucked into an envelope and we'd all have to rifle through everybody else's paycheques to find our own," she said.

"We never got pay stubs. They requested our social insurance numbers over email, which is ridiculous." 

Dana-Lynn Farrell says when she inquired about a bounced pay cheque, she was kicked out of the company's scheduling app and blocked. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

In February, she noticed her last paycheque was not able to be deposited. When she tried to contact her employer through the work app used for communication and scheduling, she said she was kicked out and blocked from accessing it.

Jenna Liang, a student at Dalhousie, worked at the Smiling Goat for eight months until April 2017. She said while she never had cheques bounce, she constantly had to fight to get her pay.

"He would always make excuses about why he was so busy he couldn't stop by a [café] location to drop off the cheque," she said.

Liang said her number of shifts were cut back without warning, to the point where she was down to one shift a month.

"I think he [Singh] was definitely taking advantage of the fact that a lot of people were students and were younger, and didn't have the luxury of being able to find a service job elsewhere in Halifax."

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg

Journalist

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca