Saint John Bakery employees left without pay after business closes

Luiz Vites, a former delivery driver, said he's been struggling to keep up with bills without the money he's owed by Saint John Bakery. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
Luiz Vites, a former delivery driver, said he's been struggling to keep up with bills without the money he's owed by Saint John Bakery. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

Former employees of the Saint John Bakery say they're still owed money for time worked in the business's final days.

The bakery paused operations at its four locations in late January. On Feb. 2, the locks were changed at the east side location after the company failed to pay the rent.

The west side location, in Lancaster Plaza, is also closed, as is the stall in the Saint John City Market and a Grand Bay-Westfield location called the Village Square Bake Shop.

There were 21 employees across the three Saint John locations, according to Emilly Nunes, a former manager. Nunes was unsure how many employees worked at the Grand Bay outlet.

The business sold a variety of baked goods, such as baguettes, dinner rolls and pies, as well as sandwiches.

Submitted by Leeza Helmer
Submitted by Leeza Helmer

CBC spoke to five former employees who say they've yet to receive between $500 and $2,000 in wages, vacation pay or severance since the bakery shut down, and they haven't been able to reach Stuart Howe, the company's owner.

"I haven't really been sleeping much just because I haven't had the money to pretty much be able to live," said Leeza Helmer, who said she's owed around $1,000.

She said the lack of wages has been impacting every part of her life.

"I was late paying rent and my hydro bill, I've been trying to catch up on that. I've been low on groceries," Helmer said.

She is one of several former employees who have filed complaints with Employment Standards regarding the missing pay.

Graham Thomspon/CBC
Graham Thomspon/CBC

Employment Standards is a provincial office where employees can file complaints if they believe their employer could be in violation of the Employment Standards Act, legislation that outlines employee rights in New Brunswick.

A representative for Employment Standards told CBC News they could not comment on or confirm complaints have been made about a particular business.

'Shame is overwhelming,' bakery owner

Stuart Howe, the bakery's owner, said people weren't paid because he ran out of money.

"To not be able to pay your team, people that have to pay their rent, people that have to feed their kids, it's — the shame is overwhelming," Howe said.

WATCH | Former employees and owner of Saint John Bakery struggling after business failed:

Howe said he has paid two employees what they're owed and has started paying back three others, using funds from selling his personal belongings. None of the employees who spoke to CBC were among those Howe said he had repaid, at the time of publication.

Howe said everyone will be paid eventually.

There's no justification for not paying wages if a business shuts down, according to Daniel Leger, the chair of New Brunswick's Labour and Employment section of the Canadian Bar Association.

"If an employee has performed work and they have not been paid, then they have a very appropriate complaint with Employment Standards," said Leger, a lawyer at Fredericton-based Pink Larkin.

High stress for employees

The situation has been distressing for Luiz Vites, an immigrant from Brazil who worked as a delivery driver for the bakery since 2021.

"I'm really struggling ... it's not fair," said Vites. "You know, we work hard. We try to do everything right. And especially for immigrants, we need to pay all our fees."

Vites estimated he's owed about $1,000 for work and vacation pay.

Michael Deas, a former dishwasher at the bakery, said he's owed about $500.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

For Deas, being without pay meant he had to ask his girlfriend to pay for his basic necessities like groceries.

"And I know it was really hard on her and I didn't want to put any extra stress anywhere else. So I just tried to manage where I could and find my way," he said.

Employment Standards told him they've been unable to contact Howe.

Lack of communication

Deas had also been attempting to reach Howe after the closure, but was unsuccessful.

"Nothing works, like phone calls, emails, everything's just disconnected," he said.

Howe said he has been in contact with some employees and Employment Standards.

Ana Cumaru, the bakery's former production manager whose husband also worked at the business, and Emilly Nunes, its former sales manager, were fielding questions from staff who hadn't been paid a few days before the temporary closure was announced.

Submitted by Emilly Nunes and Ana Cumaru
Submitted by Emilly Nunes and Ana Cumaru

The former managers said they didn't get enough information from Howe about what was going on.

"I had lots of employees that were like, desperate, saying, 'Emilly, what do I do, like, I can't pay my rent, I don't know what to do,'" Nunes said.

Cumaru said they would have appreciated an explanation to share with their colleagues.

Howe said he didn't communicate because he was panicked and trying to get someone to purchase the business to keep it afloat.

"I didn't know what to say. I had nothing to announce. And I didn't want to jeopardize what we were hoping we had coming in to save the operation and to save the employees," he said.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

Looking back on his business, Howe said he wouldn't have opened during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I assumed that after COVID we were going to have boom times," he said. "We're not, it's the opposite."

He said he made mistakes but never felt he made a mistake that jeopardized the business or the employment of his staff.

Inflation made things worse, he said and they streamlined business operations in an attempt to save money. Howe said there was a plan to keep the bakery going but he couldn't get a loan with maxed out credit cards.

"We didn't have the cash. And that's why I drained the bakery account, I drained my personal account, but then I had nowhere to go," he said.