Welcome Overhaul of Ontario Employment Standards

In a report I wrote for the Broadbent Institute on employment standards legislation across Canada, I identified numerous gaping holes that left both federal and provincial employment standards regimes “Open for Business, but Closed for Workers”. Since the report was published, some of the holes in Ontario’s regime were patched up in a significant overhaul to employment standards enacted by the government of Ontario when it passed the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act. The changes in the Act, which came into force on 20 November 2014, mean that Ontario employment standards enforcement mechanisms are an increasingly feasible – if still challenging – route for recovering back-wages and seeking compensation for standards violations. The changes also expand protections to previously-excluded foreign workers, and they bolster standards for precarious workers in temporary help agencies.

Broadening protections for foreign workers

When the Stronger Workplaces Act became law on 20 November 2014, it expanded the protections for live-in care givers under the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act (Live-in Caregivers and Others) to all foreign workers on immigration visas or temporary work programs. The Act had formerly only applied to live-in caregivers and some other workers. Hopefully, the changes will help curb some of the widespread and systemic abuse of foreign workers.

Extending limitation periods, lifting claims cap

The Stronger Workplaces Act also significantly extended the limitation period for claiming back-wages from 6 months to two years. That extension means that employees can now claim for unpaid wages from as far back as 2 years, though the change won’t fully take effect until November 2016.

In addition, employees are now no longer limited in how much money they can claim in back-wages; whereas Ontario’s Employment Standards Act had previously set an upper limit of $10,000 in back-wages, the Stronger Workplaces Act removed that limit. The removal is particularly helpful given the extent to which unpaid wages are a systemic problem in Ontario ($62 million was withheld from workers in fiscal 2009/2010 alone).

Removing the limit is particularly beneficial for workers victimized by very serious violations. When claims were limited to $10,000, it meant that claimants generally couldn’t afford legal counsel to represent them since many lawyers would not take on a claim of that size. This lack of representation left claimants at a major disadvantage when they came up against their employers’ lawyers, resulting in a grossly unfair process. With the limit removed, at least some claimants will be able to afford representation and ensure at least somewhat more fairness.

Regulating the temporary help industry

Finally, the Stronger Workplaces Act clarified the employment status of workers in the temporary help industry – as of 20 November 2015 when this particular change comes into force, workers  will be considered employees of the agency and not its client (where the agency places them). However, both agencies and their clients will be liable for unpaid wages, meaning agency employees can claim for back-wages against either the agency or the client.

How do I submit an employment standards claim?

In order to help you determine whether you should submit a claim, check out our blog post on how to submit employment standards claims.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.

Featured image by Pawel Kadysz, falling under Creative Commons CC0 license.

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