By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The agency tasked with protecting the rights of British Columbian workers is overwhelmed, observers say, leaving some workers waiting months or years to settle disputes with employers.
B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch has seen a spike in the number and complexity of complaints that have dramatically slowed its response times since 2019.
Pamela Charron, the interim executive director of the Worker Solidarity Network, is among advocates calling on the provincial government to dramatically increase the branch’s budget, arguing current delays have left vulnerable workers without a clear path to recouping unpaid wages or other money.
“We know that workers are waiting over a year to recover thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Charron.
“A low wage worker missing one day’s pay could be crucial to whether they can make ends meet or pay rent at the end of the month.”
The Employment Standards Branch is a non-judicial body that administers and enforces the province’s labour laws, including standards around the minimum wage, overtime, severance and payment of employees.
In 2017, the branch received 4,400 complaints. But in 2019, the number spiked to 7,617 — an increase of more than 75 per cent. The higher rate has continued since then.
At the same time, the branch’s response time tanked and it consistently failed to resolve complaints within its own timelines.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the Ministry of Labour reported the branch resolved more than 90 per cent of complaints within six months. In 2022, that fell to 51 per cent, well below the ministry’s benchmark target of 85 per cent.
David Fairey, the co-chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition, says the rise in cases was likely sparked by a government decision to abandon “self-help” kits the branch once required workers to complete before they submitted a complaint.
Fairey said that’s a good thing because he believes those kits were unnecessarily complicated and likely discouraged workers from continuing with the process.
But he says the subsequent rise in complaints, which may have been exacerbated by a wave of layoffs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has overwhelmed an office he argues was already understaffed.
The Ministry of Labour was not able to provide an average wait time for affected workers. But anecdotally, Fairey says it can take months to have an initial conversation with a case worker at the branch and potentially years to conduct an investigation if a resolution cannot be reached before.
One worker in a medical profession told The Tyee they waited about 18 months between when they filed a complaint about allegedly unpaid wages and when they first heard back from the board. That employee asked they not be named out of concern for career repercussions.
Fairey argues the current wait times mean workers who cannot afford to take their employer to court will simply give up on the process.
“If you’ve filed a complaint, you’ve waited six months to be contacted and then two years later they do an investigation — you’ll never go through that again,” Fairey said.
The branch has given a budget of $14 million this fiscal year, the same as the previous year but a marked increase from the roughly $7.9 million the branch spent in the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Labour Minister Harry Bains was not immediately available for an interview.
But on background, members of his office noted the branch now responds to more than 100,000 questions from employees and employers each year in multiple languages, on top of its workload resolving complaints.
Sussanne Skidmore is the president of the BC Federation of Labour, which represents unions with a collective membership of more than half a million. She says the backlog of cases also reflects the rising complexity of complaints, which may involve temporary foreign workers or people working for companies like Uber which do not consider their drivers to be employees.
Recent years have seen a growing number of temporary foreign workers in B.C. for example, who must register with the Employment Standards Branch before they can apply to the federal government for a work permit.
And the branch also covers vulnerable employees like temporary agricultural workers, who come to B.C. for a few months at a time to harvest crops and often rely on their employer for housing.
“I think the issues have become more complex,” Skidmore said.
Issues with the branch are not new, she said. In 2001, the BC Liberal government of the day slashed the branch’s funding and closed many of its physical offices.
Skidmore notes governments have occasionally bumped up the branch’s funding, sometimes with short-term top-ups, but that it has never recovered to its former level. “We know that it’s been underfunded ever since that happened and we have way more workers in this province than we did 20 years ago,” Skidmore said.
Fairey is among those who believes the branch’s funding should be doubled.
“They just need more money. There’s no question about it,” Fairey said.