Originally published in the NS Advocate.
By Lisa Cameron
KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Earlier this year baristas employed by the Smiling Goat learned the hard way how vulnerable they are.
This summer employees of a coffee shop in Bedford received a similar grim reminder.
To the surprise of both its customers and its employees, The Nook Espresso Bar and Lounge closed its Bedford location in late July of this year. It did so suddenly and without giving any kind of warning to its seven employees.
With a food token system to support poor people and posters promoting kindness and acceptance, the business, which continues to run a cafe on Gottingen Street, is supportive of people living in poverty. But this friendly and charitable image does not reflect their employment practices, says Shannon Power, a former barista at The Nook’s Bedford location.
“We suspected the cafe might close, but we weren’t entirely sure” says Power. “Many kitchen items were being removed during our shifts, including an oven and a refrigerator, but we weren’t given a clear explanation as to why.”
The Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code requires that employers give notice to employees before ending the employment relationship. The amount of notice a worker is owed depends on the length of their employment. In lieu of notice, employers can pay workers for wages lost during the notice period, which must be calculated based on an employee’s average schedule over a twelve-week span.
“Rather than using our average schedules as the law requires, The Nook calculated our notice pay based on a schedule drafted for the final week alone, when shifts were scarce,” says Power. “This left several of the baristas without the notice pay they were legally entitled to.”
The group of seven female baristas challenged their notice payments by writing an email to the owners collectively. The email was written in a firm tone, but gave the employers the opportunity to rectify their error. Power says that the response they received back was defensive. “The owners demanded our sympathy despite the horrible situation we were left in, and justified their incorrect calculations.”
After responding by email, the owners then took to Facebook where they published a long post about the business closure and the recent response of their staff.
“Up until the last minute we were trying to find ways to keep the business going even though we were running out of cash and credit. Hopefully, it is understandable that in those kinds of crisis management situations, some things you can share and some you cannot, to try to protect the business and jobs,” the owners wrote on Facebook.
In the Facebook post the Nook owners mentioned the charitable work that they do in the community, and spoke of the personal hardships they suffered as a result of the closure. “We have done all that we could possibly do in the circumstances,” the post reads. “We and our family will suffer very large losses based on the failure of this business.”
“They used the cafe’s small business status to garner sympathy from customers,” says Power. “They also tried to discredit any future attempts made by the staff to expose the cafe’s conduct by calling it defamation.”
The baristas ultimately proved their case and were compensated in accordance with the legislation after discussions with the Labour Board and the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre, which offers free legal support to low-income workers.
The Nook’s Facebook post was later updated to acknowledge the Nook’s calculation errors.
“We made a mistake in the method we calculated Payment in Lieu. Due to our error a little over half our staff were underpaid and the other half were overpaid. As you can see, this was not a malicious attempt at saving money or punishing any one staff member,” it states.
For Power and her co-workers, this was a victory. “It showed us the value of collective action,” she says. Still, each barista’s notice payment was small and did not offer the staff much cushion as they sought new employment.
Many of the baristas were only earning a minimum wage of $11.55 per hour, which is almost $8 less than what is considered to be a living wage for the city of Halifax. “If you are a business that is trying to promote an ethical image, don’t strive to do the bare minimum,” Power says.
When asked if legal education would have helped the baristas prevent this problem, she replied “I’m all for legal education campaigns. However, as long as workers’ rights remain so poor, legal education alone isn’t sufficient. The basic employment standards in the province need to improve.”
Shannon Power has since become involved in efforts to improve labour standards in Nova Scotia. These include the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, which has had success raising the minimum employment standards in several provinces across the country, along with the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre.
A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals that Nova Scotia’s labour standards fall far behind those of most other provinces in Canada. Employers are expected to both understand and comply with the legislation that governs their workplaces, which is not a tall order given the weak legislation in the province.
Enforcement of labour legislation should never fall to workers, particularly low-wage earners who are vulnerable to abuse and unfair treatment, and for whom legal solutions are often made inaccessible.
So far the Nook Espresso Bar and Lounge has not responded to our emailed requests for comment.