Hard At Work: This woman claims company fired her after she complained about unpaid wages

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Hard At Work: This woman claims company fired her after she complained about unpaid wages

Imagine being a contract worker and waiting two-and-a-half months to get paid — only to be fired after you complain about not getting your cheque. That's what one Ontario occupational therapist who works on contract alleges happened to her.

As part of our Hard at Work series, we're looking at how employees in Ontario could benefit from changes being considered to the Employment Standards Act. CBC Toronto first told you in February about the changes that could overhaul workplace rules in Ontario. Since then, thousands of people have commented on the stories and hundreds more have written to us with their workplace horror stories.

Fewer 'employees,' more contract workers

Sandra Starr has been a registered occupational therapist for the last 30 years. In her email to CBC Toronto, she said she's never participated in a protest or written to a media outlet — but had to speak out about her situation.

The nature of Starr's job has evolved, she says. Whereas before she could easily get a staff job and be an "employee," more and more of her field is moving to contract work.

She was working as an independent contractor for ABIRA Healthcare — a company that provides physiotherapy services in long-term care facilities in Ontario.

Starr claims she went several weeks without being paid. She alleges she was let go shortly after she complained. In its statement of defence, ABIRA Healthcare denied it had ever made late payments, and claimed Starr was "well aware" of the reasons for which she was terminated. 

"He said I was fired with cause — I knew that wasn't the case …. Then all communication ceased," Starr said.

When CBC Toronto contacted Daniel Diena, the manager at ABIRA Healthcare, he said the company hires some employees and some contractors. One of the reasons he cited for terminating contract workers is because "they decided they want more money and we can't afford to pay on the contract that we're on."

Diena said the company pays contractors within 30-45 days, but "wouldn't know" what happened with Starr's case and would not comment further.

Starr contacted the police, but was told it was a civil matter. She reached out to her MPP, who told her to get a lawyer. The Ministry of Health, which oversees long-term care facilities, told her she had a contract and there was nothing they could do.  

She eventually took ABIRA to small claims court. Her claim resulted in a settlement and she was awarded $13,000, including interest and costs.

'No recourse' to fight against employer

"I really had no recourse," Starr said. "There's so much unfairness out there and there's no way to right it."

She wants the government to acknowledge that not everyone is an employee these days and contract workers aren't granted the same rights.

"It seems to be a greater, greater, greater population of people that are not employees," she said.

More and more workers are experiencing a different kind of employee-employer relationship says Andrew Cash, co-founder of the Urban Worker Project. Despite contractors working within a company, "they are usually outside of the mainframe of the employee culture," he told CBC Toronto.

Cash, who pushed for fairer rights for people doing precarious work as an MP, says he's received enormous input from people across the country saying they haven't been paid.

"The chips are always stacked against the independent worker," he said.

One of the recommendations in the Changing Workplaces Review is to provide equal rights, pay and benefits to contract workers — something Cash says, would be a step in the right direction.

He says New York City recently moved legislation to try and ensure contract workers get paid on time. The "Freelance Isn't Free Act" protects freelance workers from clients who pay late, or not at all.

No benefits, holidays or sick days

Being an independent contractor does have its pros; greater flexibility is one of them, says Starr. But as an employee you have benefits, paid holidays and paid sick days.

"My mother is quite ill right now and I lost a contract because I had to help deal with my family."

As an independent contract worker, Starr is not eligible to take the compassionate care benefit.

If a business hires independent contractors, they are able to avoid costs under the Employment Standards Act, which include:

- Four per cent vacation pay.

- Public holiday pay.

- Overtime pay.

- Termination pay.

- Severance pay.

- Paying EI and CPP premiums.

According to a report from the United Way and McMaster University, fewer than half of workers in the GTA and Hamilton have permanent, full-time jobs with benefits. 

​The review of Ontario's labour laws has been in the works for nearly two years, since the government appointed a pair of special advisers to recommend changes.

As of now, there is no date set for when the government would rollout any reforms.

Are you a worker who could benefit from changes to Ontario's employment laws? Are you an employer concerned that the changes could harm your business? Send us an email to tell us your story.