Unifor Local 2000 filed dozens of freedom of information requests on Vancouver studios to see what complaints people have made over working conditions. All of the complaints were filed with the B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch, a provincial agency tasked with enforcing the Employment Standards Act.
Most companies came back clean, but a few showed up in our search. Here’s what we found:
Issue: Vacation pay included in wages
Complaint filed: Feb. 16, 2013
Case closed: Aug. 27, 2013
Someone filed an anonymous complaint about vacation pay, because Atomic was including 4% vacation pay in people’s hourly wages. The Employment Standards Branch investigated and determined Atomic was breaking the rules, as vacation pay must be listed separately on all paystubs. Atomic started listing vacation pay separately after receiving the complaint, but company lawyers defended the practice, citing case law, and claimed no money was owed.
The investigator then pointed to other red flags: Atomic also failed to indicate the number of hours worked on people’s paystubs, and the company was using a clause that people were paid for “all services to be rendered.” The investigator then gave Atomic a choice: voluntary compliance or further investigation of overtime wages and stat holiday pay.
Atomic voluntarily complied, and the matter was resolved with a settlement for vacation pay from Jan. 1, 2013, to roughly August 2013. The amount and number of employees who received payment is unknown, because the Jobs Ministry heavily redacted the documents.
HOW TO AVOID THIS: Check your paystub to make sure vacation is listed separately from your hours. Vacation can be banked and taken at a later date, or, if you’re on contract, it’s often paid out as 4% of your wages. Also, make sure the number of hours is listed on your paystub.
Documents: FOI Atomic (second complaint starts on page 71)
Complaint filed: March 16, 2014
Case closed: June 17, 2014
An employee filed a complaint about wages from Atomic’s joint contractor Yeti Farm, in Kelowna. Details are scant because of heavy redaction, but it appears the claim was about expenses and wages after the employee moved to Kelowna to start training at Atomic’s request. Atomic agreed to pay for training, but only if the employee would sign a “termination letter” that would bar him or her from further legal claims. According to Atomic, the employee had mentioned filing a human rights complaint and was refusing to sign the letter. In the end, the employee accepted payment for the training period and signed the letter, while Atomic refused to pay “other expenses.”
HOW TO AVOID THIS: If your employer asks you to undergo training, the company has to pay you. You’re considered an employee while an employer is training you for their business. To protect yourself from a potential dispute, confirm you will be paid by obtaining an agreement in writing. If the company only confirms verbally, send a follow up email outlining the verbal agreement. Ie: “Following our conversation today, I just want to confirm I will be paid during the training period…” etc. If the employer fails to correct the record, the information outlined in your email stands, and your message can be used as evidence supporting your side if there is a dispute.
Complaint filed: Oct. 6, 2016
Case closed: Oct. 13, 2016
This short-lived investigation revolved around benefit payments, but the complaint was withdrawn in a matter of days. The investigator’s notes indicate that DHX was not contravening the act, because the company was still paying benefits, and the complainant had not yet been terminated. The investigator advised the employee to file a complaint if DHX terminated the employee without proper notice or compensation in lieu of notice.
HOW TO AVOID THIS: If you’re getting laid off, your employer must give you written notice of termination or pay in lieu of notice. How much money you receive depends on how long you’ve worked. For example, after 12 months of work you receive two weeks pay. If you normally receive benefits, those benefits continue during those two weeks, whether you work or take the two weeks of severance. Section 67 (2) of the Act states that once an employee receives notice, the wage or any other condition of employment can’t be altered without the employee’s consent. Benefits, in this case, are considered a condition of employment.
Issue: overtime, stat holiday pay, vacation
Complaint filed: Aug. 23, 2012
Case closed: March 7, 2013
The employee filed a complaint over unpaid overtime, stat holiday pay and vacation. The supporting documents included payroll info and an email from Image Engine asking people working on The Thing to “aim for a 10 hour work day.”
Image Engine’s lawyer replied, stating all overtime was paid and the claim for unpaid overtime was “excessive.” The Employment Standards investigator brought up the high tech provision but noted that the employee was unfazed and that it might not apply. The investigator also advised Image Engine that any wages older than six months were unrecoverable, since they can only investigate six months before the complaint date. Image Engine was given a choice: settlement payment, mediation or adjudication. A mediation hearing was scheduled, and the case was eventually resolved through a settlement payment.
HOW TO AVOID THIS: Record your hours, especially anything out of the ordinary. Keep copies of any requests to work late. When in doubt, file an Employment Standards Branch complaint (we can help with this by filing a third-party complaint to protect your identity; just email [email protected]). If the company claims you’re high tech, file a complaint, because the Employment Standards Branch may not agree.
Documents: FOI Image Engine (second complaint starts on page 90)
Issue: Allegations of general Employment Standards Act violations and wage fixing
Complaint filed: June 29, 2009
Case closed: Oct. 13, 2009
Someone filed an anonymous complaint against MPC, but the details are redacted. At the end of the letter, the complainant alleged that Image Engine contacted MPC “to discuss pay scales and contracts”. According to the investigator’s reply, the complainant was not currently employed by either MPC or Image Engine but had been offered a contract for a daily rate but no overtime until after 10 hours of work and no overtime on Saturdays and Sundays. The investigator replied that there was not enough information to proceed. There are no documents showing the complainant replied or that the complaint was investigated or resolved. (Note: Allegations of wage fixing would not be investigated by the federal Competition Bureau, not the Employment Standards Branch.)
Moving Picture Company
Issue: Back pay following salary review
Complaint filed: Sept. 1, 2015
Case closed: Oct. 22, 2015
An employee filed a complaint for wages – details are scant because the entire complaint form and much of the correspondence has been redacted. Subsequent documents indicate MPC had a practice of reviewing salaries for people who worked more than a year. It appears the complainant wanted a retroactive salary review and back pay. The Employment Standards Act doesn’t cover this, but the investigator tried to get MPC to mediation for a voluntary resolution. Mediation was set for Oct. 22, 2015, but it appears that the employee withdrew the complaint on the date of mediation.
HOW TO AVOID THIS: If you were promised a salary review verbally, reiterate the details in an email to your employer so you have something in writing to hold them to account. This forces the employer to respond in writing, and if they don’t, the information in your email can be used to support your case in a dispute.
Moving Picture Company
Documents: FOI MPC (Second complaint starts on page 55.)
Issue: Overtime pay and high tech exclusion
Complaint filed: Dec. 5, 2013
Case closed: April 7, 2014
An employee filed a complaint about overtime, specifically asking the Employment Standards Branch for a determination on whether he was a high tech worker. The complainant wasn’t interested in recovering money; he wanted to challenge the high tech claim. The investigator said in his opinion, the high tech provision would not apply, but they would have to go after the overtime claim to get the case to adjudication level for a decision on the high tech exclusion. MPC’s position was that the employee signed a contract knowing full well he would be considered high tech (and therefore not entitled to overtime or stat holiday pay). The case went to mediation, and then the employee withdrew the complaint.
HOW TO AVOID THIS: Some employers claim their employees are high tech workers so they don’t have to pay them overtime or stat holiday pay. The high tech provision can be challenged, and some investigators, including the one in this case, don’t think it should apply to certain jobs. File a complaint with the branch and see it through to the end. You may get a ruling in your favour. If you need help doing this, email [email protected].
How can a union help?
Imagine you approach your boss for fair overtime pay. How do you think the conversation will go? What if you and everyone else in the studio get together to make the same request? That’s how unions work. We’ve been talking to people in many studios about their working conditions and how unions can bring positive, lasting change to improve the workplace. Unions are about people coming together and using their collective power to negotiate a contract with an employer. When you unionize, employees can put forward proposals on things like wages, overtime pay, benefits and working conditions and negotiate those with the studio. Interested? Want to learn more? Email [email protected] for a confidential consultation.
We asked for summary records of Employment Standards complaints going back 10 years for the following companies and then requested the case files for the studios with complaints on file. (Note that any cases currently under investigation, like our third-party complaint against Nitrogen, are not included.)
- Atomic Cartoons
- Bardel Entertainment
- Big Bad Studios
- Black Tusk/The Coalition
- Bron Studios
- Capcom Games
- Digital Domain,
- Double Negative
- Eh Okay Entertainment
- Electronic Arts
- Entity FX
- Image Engine
- Image Studios
- Industrial Light and Magic
- Method Studios
- Relic Entertainment
- Slaphappy Cartoons
- Sony Pictures Imageworks
- the Embassy
- United Front Games (which closed in October 2016)
*This is not an exhaustive list, but if you would like us to file a freedom of information on another studio, email [email protected].