Despite budget increases, the Employment Standards Branch is failing to meet its own response time targets.

The B.C. agency tasked with protecting workers’ legal rights is failing to meet its own targets in 80 per cent of the complaints it  handles, leaving thousands of workers waiting months or years to recoup  unpaid wages.

The province’s Employment  Standards Branch aims to resolve disputes between employers and workers  within 180 days, but only managed to do so in 20 per cent of the more  than 7,700 cases it handled last year. 

Andreea Micu, a legal advocate with the  Worker Solidarity Network, says workers are often waiting a year or more  to get help from the branch, whose officers can compel employers to pay  workers wages, severance and other money they might be owed under the  Employment Standards Act. 

The branch gives low-income workers a  chance to get justice without needing to hire a lawyer and sue. But Micu  said the long waits have discouraged some workers from applying. 

“Instead of the employer  being deterred from breaking the law, it actually deters employees from  going after their rights,” Micu said. 

The data illustrates how  the branch has struggled to fulfill its mission after what advocates  describe as decades of underfunding. 

In 2018, the branch received 4,937  complaints and resolved roughly 90 per cent of all the complaints it  received in the 2018-19 fiscal year. 

Shortly after, the NDP government removed a  “self-help” requirement introduced by the former BC Liberal government  that denied workers access to the branch until they had attempted to  resolve complaints with the employer on their own.

Labour advocates have argued that change  was necessary because the kits were difficult to complete and suppressed  claims from workers. 

But the result was also a jump in complaints submitted to the branch, which meant a growing caseload. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic began, sparking a  wave of layoffs that only increased the branch’s workload. An internal  briefing notes obtained by The Tyee say the branch had a backlog of  4,548 cases as of January 2022, a 15-per-cent decrease from the same  time period the previous year. 

In a written statement, the Labour Ministry acknowledged the branch has seen a “dramatic” jump in demand for its services.

BC Liberal labour critic Greg Kyllo has  argued government should have foreseen the spike in caseload and the  resulting delays. In a previous interview with The Tyee, he said  government should collect and release more data on where complaints were  coming from.

Labour advocates, though, say it is  indicative of a long-term funding problem at the branch, which lost a  third of its 145 staff shortly after the BC Liberals came to power in  2001. In 2017, when the NDP were elected, the branch had the equivalent  of just 96 full-time employees. 

“It says to us that there’s not been enough  money in the branch to make sure there are enough bodies there to do  the work,” BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore said in  an interview last month.  

Spending on the branch has roughly doubled  since the NDP formed government and staffing has increased from 96 to  142 full-time equivalents. 

Earlier this year, Labour Minister Harry  Bains announced the branch would get a $3-million boost to its  $14-million budget this year. The branch will also receive further  funding boosts on top of in the two following fiscal years, which Bains  said would support the hiring of the equivalent of 33 new full-time  staff. 

The branch is aiming to ensure 85 per cent of all cases are resolved within six months by the 2025-26 fiscal year. 

Micu, though, says action is needed faster for workers facing delays. 

She says branch staff are under pressure to  resolve files quickly and some new officers seem unfamiliar with the  province’s labour laws. 

In one case, she said, a worker who  contacted the network had been rebuffed by the branch, which wrongly  said claims weren’t allowed based on constructive dismissal.  (Constructive dismissal involves major changes to an employee’s job  which are considered the equivalent of termination.)

In other cases, Micu said, workers were  offered settlements that the workers’ network considered too low given  what they were owed.

“In the interest of clearing this backlog,  we have workers who are not being informed about the process they are  in, who are being pressured into accepting settlements that are far  below what they would receive,” she said. 

In a written statement, the labour minister  said it was “actively recruiting and rigorously training new staff for  these highly skilled and complex positions.” 

Micu, though, says many workers today still  face long waits. Many workers who contact her organization for help,  she said, live paycheque to paycheque and cannot afford to spend months  waiting for a resolution.



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