Employee Classification Risks

The way people view and perform work is changing and Canadians must be ready to respond. Short-term engagements, temporary contracts and independent contracting characterize this type of workforce. Organizations often rely on contractors to fill key positions, help maintain labour flexibility and keep overhead costs under control. However, any organization that uses independent contractors or is considering doing so, need to be aware of the associated risks and seek the advice of experienced legal counsel.

This article sets out to use a recent Uber class action, Uber v Heller, as a precedent to exemplify the legal and financial risks associated with how companies classify workers. We will look at how the courts make decisions on classification of workers, what protection is available to independent contract workers; and finally suggest some ways businesses can build practices to protect themselves.

Workers need to understand how they are classified, what it means; and take action when there is an issue. Employers need to understand how to create and maintain proper practices to accurately assess and classify their workforce.

Let’s look at Uber v Heller more closely.

In the Uber Class Action, the plaintiffs seek $400 million in damages as well as a declaration that Uber drivers are employees (not contractors) of Uber and therefore entitled to the benefits and protections afforded by the Employment Standards Act (ESA).

Uber brought a preliminary challenge to the proposed class action on the basis that its drivers, including Mr. Heller, were precluded from proceeding through the courts as they had instead agreed to resolve any disputes through private arbitration in the Netherlands. In the end, the action was stayed in favour of arbitration. For a more detailed review of this decision see my earlier article Arbitration Clause in Employment Contract puts the Breaks on the Uber Class Action in Ontario

Mr. Heller appealed the stay decision to the Court of Appeal claiming that the arbitration clause in Uber’s driver services agreement represents an unlawful contracting out of the ESA and that the clause is unconscionable and thus invalid at law. The Court of Appeal accepted both arguments and overturned the decision of the motion judge. I also wrote about this Court of Appeal decision: Uber Class Action Given the Green Light to Proceed by Ontario Court of Appeal

So, are Uber Drivers now classified as Employees?

The Ontario courts have yet to answer the question of classification — whether Uber drivers are classified as employees. The ruling on the classification is the larger issue in the Uber case litigation. However, at this time, the court is still determining the preliminary issues of jurisdiction and the enforceability of the arbitration clause. The Supreme Court of Canada – the highest court in our country – has granted to hear Uber’s appeal.

This case clearly demonstrates the significant impact of improper classification claims on a large company. Regardless of the outcome of the Uber case in terms of classification, the case demonstrates that clarity and enforceability of the classification system used by an employer is very instrumental in protecting employers against costly litigation such as what Uber is currently involved in.

Employers must become proactive in taking action to sharply review and assess workforce compositions and ensure that appropriate classifications are in place. Employers must also understand that a worker’s title does not determine whether they are an employee or independent contractor but that it is the nature of their employment relationship that determines the classification. As well, a worker’s actual classification may differ from what the contract specifies.

How do the courts determine worker classification?

In Sagaz Industries Canada Inc., the Supreme Court of Canada outlined some of the factors to consider in determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. In the decision, the Supreme Court of Canada makes the point that there is no single test that provides a clear answer to ever-changing variables of workforce relations (hence classification of employee versus independent contractor) and that people must examine all possible factors in the relationships to form a picture of the total relationship of the parties.

Canadian courts and tribunals have developed common law tests associated with the employment relationship to determine who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. The following are key factors considered in these tests:

  • Control
  • Ownership of tools
  • Chance of profit/risk of loss
  • Business integration
  • Payment
  • The factors are weighed and considered together in determining whether a person is an employee or independent contractor.

As an example, if the relationship looks like an employment relationship wherein the employer controls working conditions and the worker is economically dependent on the employer, the worker will likely be found to be an employee.

Worker Classification Example:

The case Fisher v Hirtz, 2016 ONSC 4768 details the scope of review and analysis necessary in determining the true legal nature of employment relationships and employee classifications therein and the impact of that classification on dismissal claims.

In this case, the plaintiff sues a company for wrongful dismissal. In the end, her claim was dismissed because the court determined she should be classified as an independent contractor not an employee. Had she been deemed an employee or dependent contractor, the court would have concluded, among other things, that she did not quit but was dismissed without cause and was entitled to pay in lieu of reasonable notice.

Employee versus contractor cases result in varying decisions on classification — there is no set formula to determine classifications. Decisions must be on a case-by-case basis involving close attention to the factors in each case. In the end, the true legal nature of the employment relationship must be identified and clarified.

In determining the true legal nature of relationships the courts look at:

  • The intentions of the parties
  • How the parties themselves regard the relationships
  • The behaviour of the parties toward each other
  • The manner of conducting their business with one another.

In Fisher v Hirtz, the court followed the tiered analysis and applied the above legal principles of established methodologies and criteria. In the end, the worker was deemed a contractor as her employer assigned the work, as it did to other trades persons, but she controlled whether she would accept the assignment.

The first stage of analysis will end once the worker is determined to be an employee. If the worker is determined to be a “contractor” the analysis will continue through a second stage to decide if they are a dependent contractor or an independent contractor.

In the case cited above, during the second stage of the analysis, the court determined she was an independent contractor as she had only provided varying amounts of services over a sixteen-month period during which she also carried on business as a sole proprietor. There was little evidence of any long-term dependency.

General Overview of Independent Contractors

Essentially, contractors are self-employed service providers who manage their own businesses.

An independent contractor has more freedom to choose how they complete work but are responsible for paying their own taxes, getting their own health insurance, and paying into unemployment and workers compensation funds. The most important factor is the level of control an employer has over the worker.

In contrast, an employee works under the control of an employer and has certain benefits provided by the employer including workers compensation, unemployment insurance, and health insurance.

Protection for Contract Employees

Canadian law has not yet caught up with changes in the labour market and contract workers are generally excluded from the protections and benefits that accompany traditional paid employment.

Gig workers are generally treated as independent contractors with none of the employment rights guarantees available in more regular jobs. The Employment Standards Act (ESA) does not apply to independent contractors, volunteers or other individuals who are not considered employees under the ESA.

How can businesses and employers protect themselves?

Practice development tips:

  • Take a proactive approach to reviewing the workforce and classifying employees accordingly. This can save a lot of headaches, potential penalties and even mitigate the risk of litigation.
  • Make sure employees are not misclassified as contractors when they should be recognized as regular staff with rights under the Employment Standards Act — contact an experienced employment lawyer for advice if necessary.
  • Regularly monitor the relationship to ensure the contractor’s independent status doesn’t change. For example, a company might hire an independent contractor who becomes more engaged in the company over years. If the company’s reliance on the individual’s services grows, the individual could be deemed an employee.

Workforce Tips:

  • If there are independent contractors who are actually being treated like employees, it may be time to change their classification.
  • At time of hiring, if a worker insists that they want to be an independent contractor and not an employee, it is advisable to investigate the situation and seek legal advice before agreeing.
  • In the event of a challenge, the practical reality will govern the classification and not what is written in a contract.

Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

Discipline at Work in Ontario

Being fired or getting terminated for “just cause” is only one form of discipline available to Ontario employers. Often, though, termination for cause is too harsh in the circumstances and therefore not available as an option. It is important for both employees and employers to understand what other types of discipline are available and how to act in accordance with the principles of “progressive discipline”.

This article will be focusing on discipline in the workplace aside from termination. For more information on termination see one of my earlier articles: Termination of the Employment Relationship in Ontario » Legally Speaking.

What is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive discipline is a process used to deal with any job-related behaviour that does not meet expected and communicated standards or policies regarding job performance, absenteeism or lateness, or other minor misconduct. The primary purpose of the progressive discipline doctrine is to help an employee understand that a performance problem exists and to offer opportunities for improvement. The concept behind progressive discipline is that where an employee repeatedly fails to meet the expectations of the job, the disciplinary action against him will begin with mild correction action and gradually move to more serious actions as each incident occurs — eventually permitting an employer to terminate for cause.

The law does not require employment contracts to include the employer’s approach to progressive discipline however, best practices suggest an employer should set out their approach to progressive discipline in a well-written and well-communicated policy. In this regard, they are able to refer to it specifically as necessary.

Levels of Disciplinary Action

Basic progressive discipline policy provides for four levels of discipline: verbal warning, written warning, suspension and termination. There is no one single approach applied — approaches vary depending on the company and collective bargaining agreement. For example, the discipline for a first offence may be counselling in one company yet a warning in another.

Overall, effective discipline helps to correct employee behavioural issues, increase productivity as well as help to protect a company against wrongful termination lawsuits.

Levels of disciplinary action are as follows:

  • Verbal warning
  • Written warning
  • Performance improvement plan
  • Temporary pay cut
  • Loss of privileges
  • Suspension
  • Demotion
  • Termination

Termination for cause should be considered as a last resort. It is challenging to prove terminations are justified and courts only do so in the clearest of circumstances. In exceptional circumstances, immediate termination for an act of significant or severe misconduct may be appropriate but in almost all cases, employers should be guided by the principle of progressive and corrective discipline.

Rather than straight dismissal, the goal of progressive discipline is correcting poor behaviour and creating a better and more productive employee.

What should employers do?

In instances where an employee’s performance or conduct is at issue, the employer should clearly provide the employee with the following:

  • A clear explanation of the problem
  • A list of steps that should be taken by the employee to address and correct the problem
  • Assistance to the employee to help him address and correct the problem
  • A reasonable time frame in which the problem is expected to be corrected

This process applies to any of the disciplinary action levels – i.e. Verbal or written warnings, performance improvement plans etc. Employers must give employees clear messages, actionable steps, assistance and reasonable time frames to show improvement during any stage of discipline.

What Forms of Discipline Are Not Appropriate?

Employee discipline is not about dominance or punishment. As a result, in most instances, discipline that is punitive is contrary to employment law. For example, withholding pay or suspending an employee without pay is not appropriate. Subjecting an employee to humiliation in front of coworkers, demotions or cuts in salary/pay are also considered inappropriate forms of discipline. Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people. It has also been described as the assertion of power through aggression. In this respect, it is punitive and not an appropriate form of discipline.

Suspension is a common form of punitive disciplinary action.

Unpaid Suspensions

According to the Ontario Court of Appeal, an unpaid administrative suspension generally triggers a constructive dismissal “unless it (is) an express or implied term of the contract that the employer (can) suspend an employee without pay.”

The Courts will assess unpaid suspensions with a higher level of scrutiny than paid suspensions. Accordingly, employers should not impose unpaid suspensions unless they are expressly permitted to do so by a contract of employment or the circumstances are such that an unpaid suspension is reasonable. In other words, if an employer imposes an administrative suspension that is neither expressly permitted by contract nor reasonable in the circumstances, they run the risk of liability for constructive dismissal damages.

Courts often look at whether the employee had the opportunity to challenge the suspension before the person who imposed the suspension in the first place. Failing to allow for this may render the suspension a constructive dismissal, wherein the employee may claim for notice for the termination of their employment and the potential for any unpaid wages during the suspension period.

A clear and well-drafted employment agreement or workplace policies and handbooks regarding suspensions will provide both the employer and employee with information on their rights.

How is the appropriate level of discipline determined?

Courts and tribunals expect employers to apply disciplinary measures fairly and consistently, taking into account any specific circumstances of the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Aside from the strict facts of the case, adjudicators consider both “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors in determining the most appropriate type and severity of disciplinary action — especially when an action as serious as dismissal is being considered. Arbitrators weigh the presence, or absence, of mitigating factors in deciding whether to uphold, reduce or rescind a disciplinary sanction.

  • Aggravating factors lead to a more substantial (harsher) penalty
  • Mitigating factors lead to a more lenient (lesser) penalty

Some examples of employee related factors that affect the level of disciplinary action taken include the following:

  • Clean employment record
  • No other disciplinary record on file
  • State of mind of employee when behaviour came into question (i.e. medical condition; emotional problems, harassment, violence etc.)
  • Whether an employee shows remorse during the investigation — i.e. admitting responsibility, offering an apology etc.
  • Wilful or Intentional insubordination and/or misconduct

Examples of some of the case related factors adjudicators consider are as follows:

  • Was the misconduct intentional?
  • Is the employee accepting responsibility for his/her actions?
  • Was the infraction an isolated incident?
  • Is this a long-term employee?
  • What is the work history of the employee?

From Policy to Practice

Policies communicate expectations to staff and guarantee that fair and consistent treatment is served to all. It is important for staff to know from the start what is expected and how their performance will be addressed should it fall short of workplace standards. Policies hold everyone accountable and need to be supported by accompanying procedures.

The following are procedures to support progressive discipline:

On-going operational procedures:

  • Hold regular manager training, and make progressive discipline policy review a prominent part of that training
  • Create a standardised form for all managers and departments to use when they write up an employee for a disciplinary infraction. Be sure they fill out the form in full.
  • Develop a system that allows easy review of disciplinary write-ups.
  • Practice early detection of issues with equal treatment of employees by different managers. Make it a point to ask about this issue during employee reviews.
  • Discipline managers if they fail to uphold company policies.

Procedures involving incompetence: Employee lacks the skills or ability to do the job.

  • Set out clear, reasonable job expectations in company policies
  • Clearly communicate job expectations to all employees
  • Bring unacceptable work to the attention of the employee promptly
  • Provide reasonable supervision, training and instruction
  • Give reasonable warning that failure to meet these expectations could result in dismissal
  • Allow for time and opportunity to meet the job expectations
  • If not improvement has emerged, dismiss the employee
  • Keep complete written records

Procedures involving misconduct: Employee breaks rules for keeping the work place efficient and safe.

Suggested steps:

  • Give the employee an opportunity to tell his/her story about the misconduct
  • Collect all the relevant facts surrounding the misconduct
  • Give a verbal warning
  • Give a written warning
  • Suspend the employee
  • As a final step in the process, dismiss the employee
  • Keep complete written records

Summary Comments

Termination of staff should be considered a last resort. The incorporation of progressive discipline in the form of policies, procedures and practices can provide effective corrective strategies to mitigate many behaviour issues and avoid disputes being taken to court. Progressive discipline is a doctrine upheld by Ontario courts, which should be part of a company policy and should be clearly communicated and adhered to.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.