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All Ontario Employers Need New Employment Contracts: Court of Appeal

Due to a very disruptive decision released by the Ontario Court of Appeal last week in Waksdale v Swegon North America Inc., 2020 ONCA 391, your employment contract is probably no longer enforceable.

Waksdale v Swegon North America Inc.

Waksdale v Swegon North America Inc. was a wrongful dismissal action by employee Benjamin Waksdale against his former employer Swegon North America Inc. Mr. Waksdale was terminated without cause after working only 8 months. He sued for 6 months pay in lieu of reasonable notice.

The plaintiff’s employment contract had the following “Termination Without Cause” provision:

You agree that in the event that your employment is terminated without cause, you shall receive one week notice or pay in lieu of such notice in addition to the minimum notice or pay in lieu of such notice and statutory severance pay as may be required under the Employment Standards Act 2000 as amended. All reimbursement for business expenses shall cease as of the date of termination of your employment, however, you shall be reimbursed for legitimate business expenses that have been incurred and submitted to the Company but not as yet paid you to that date. The terms of this section shall continue to apply notwithstanding any changes hereafter to the terms of your employment, including, but not limited to, your job title, duties and responsibilities, reporting structure, responsibilities, compensation or benefits.

The employment contract also had a “Termination for Cause” provision. It was conceded by the employer that the wording of this Termination for Cause provision breached the terms of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“ESA”) and was therefore void and unenforceable. In what is probably the most problematic portion of this decision, neither the Ontario Superior Court nor the Ontario Court of Appeal set out the wording of the Termination for Cause provision. Accordingly, we are all left to guess at what made it unenforceable.

At trial, the lawyer for Mr. Waksdale argued that the employment contract (or at the very least both of its termination provisions) was not enforceable because the Termination for Cause provision was void.

The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed and held as follows:

An employment agreement must be interpreted as a whole and not on a piecemeal basis. The correct analytical approach is to determine whether the termination provisions in an employment agreement read as a whole violate the ESA. Recognizing the power imbalance between employees and employers, as well as the remedial protections offered by the ESA, courts should focus on whether the employer has, in restricting an employee’s common law rights on termination, violated the employee’s ESA rights. While courts will permit an employer to enforce a rights-restricting contract, they will not enforce termination provisions that are in whole or in part illegal. In conducting this analysis, it is irrelevant whether the termination provisions are found in one place in the agreement or separated, or whether the provisions are by their terms otherwise linked.

What Makes a Termination for Cause Provision Void and Unenforceable?

As I have previously written about in my article “Termination of the Employment Relationship in Ontario”, where an employer has “just cause” for termination they can fire an employee without paying reasonable notice at common law (subject to the principles of Progressive Discipline).

Examples of “Just Cause” at common law include:

  • Repeated breaches of company policy
  • Repeated Truancy
  • Violence or Harassment
  • Dishonesty
  • Insubordination

When terminating for just cause, however, employers are still required to pay ESA Notice and Severance unless that employee “has been guilty of wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer”.

Unless your employment contract explicitly carves out a distinction between termination for Just Cause and termination for “wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer”, it may be void and unenforceable, as was found by the Court of Appeal in the Waksdale decision. As a result, your employment contract’s “Termination Without Cause” provision might also be found unenforceable.

Employment Contracts Post-Waksdale

The existence of the Waksdale decision is a serious liability for Ontario employers. Previously, little attention had been paid to the enforceability of the “Just Cause” provisions. From now on, that will no longer be the case. In my experience, very few employment contracts that come across my desk draw the distinction between Just Cause and “wilful misconduct, disobedience or wilful neglect of duty that is not trivial and has not been condoned by the employer”.

As a result, the majority of employment contracts in Ontario need to be amended and updated. Otherwise, employers risk their termination provisions being unenforceable, which means they will owe employees common law reasonable notice. Common law reasonable notice often works out to months or years of notice rather than weeks under the ESA.

Waksdale Raises More Questions

While the Ontario Court of Appeal has made up its mind on the effect of poorly drafted Without Cause provisions, the Waksdale decision raises other important questions concerning employment contract more generally: if other terms of an employment contract breach the ESA, what is the effect on the enforceability of the termination provisions? For example, what if your employment contract provides for less than the minimum vacation entitlements, does that invalidate your termination provision?

This is a problem because, in Waksdale, the Court of Appeal stated “the correct analytical approach is to determine whether the termination provisions in an employment agreement read as a whole violate the ESA”. The Court also explained that “an employment agreement must be interpreted as a whole and not on a piecemeal basis”.

Whatever the answer to that question is, there is no doubt that employees now have another arrow in their quiver when challenging employment contracts— and employers face yet another risk when terminating an employee.

Employers Need New Employment Contracts

In conclusion, employers need to update their employment contracts. Doing so is inexpensive and pays substantial dividends at termination time. As noted, the difference in notice period, for an employee with an enforceable termination provision versus one without, can be months or years of pay.

If you are interested in learning how to implement new or update employment contracts, read my article, How to Change Employment Contracts.


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.

Termination within Probation Periods

Probation at the start of employment may seem simple, but they don’t always automatically allow employers to fire someone in their first 3 months free and clear. Probationary periods are actually legally intricate.

Employees terminated during probationary periods often accept their fate without seeking legal advice when in many cases they may be eligible for severance payments (even severance payments of several months or more). Likewise, employers may dismiss an employee within a probationary period only to be surprised and unprepared when they’re told termination pay for wrongful dismissal is owed.

Purpose and Effect of Probation Periods

The reason for probationary periods in employment contracts is to provide a safeguard to employers. It allows an employer a period of time to assess a new hire on their suitability for the role. This benefits employees to the extent that an employer may be more willing to take a chance on an employee they are not certain about, if they have a period of time to change their mind without consequence.

The Ontario Employment Standards Act (“ESA“) does not define probation or probationary period. Instead, it allows an employer to terminate an employee without cause in the first three months of employment, without notice or pay in lieu of notice. It frequently doesn’t matter, therefore, for the purposes of the Employment Standards Act whether an employment contract contains a probationary clause (although it is important that the probationary clause does not provide for less notice than the minimums required under the ESA). If an employee is employed less than 3 months, under the ESA, he or she gets no ESA notice. If an employee is employed 3 months or more they are entitled to ESA notice. The existence, or lack thereof, of a probationary clause doesn’t change this.

The true purpose of a probationary period in an employment contract is to rebut the common law rule that employees are entitled to reasonable notice.

It may come as a surprise to some that even if you’ve been employed for a single day (or even if you haven’t started yet), the Courts have declared that terminated employees are entitled to some form of notice or pay-in-lieu of notice. In fact, recent trends in case law, suggest that short term employees (people employed only a few months) may be entitled to even more notice. A properly drafted and enforceable probationary clause may rebut this presumption and disentitle employees on probation to notice.

Termination within Probation Periods

In order for an employee to be subject to a probationary clause it generally must be:

  1. expressed (in writing) – the courts will not imply the existence of a probation period;
  2. it must be neither vague or ambiguous; and
  3. it must not provide for less notice than the minimums set out in the ESA

Further, and most critically, in order for an employer to be relieved from paying reasonable notice to the terminated probationary employee, it must act in good faith. This means that it must have provided the employee with a fair opportunity to demonstrate their suitability for the role and acted fairly in determining that the employee was unsuitable for the role.

Suitability

Defining “suitability” can be challenging. The Courts recognise that assessments of probationary employees involve the consideration of factors that are intangible and subjective. As a result, they often extend wide discretion to employers. Overall, the grounds used to establish unsuitability must be reasonable and must demonstrate that employees are given a fair chance to meet the requirements of the job.

Example of factors that may be taken into consideration to determine suitability of a probationary employee are as follows:

  • Performance
  • Attitude and compatibility
  • Capability and skill
  • Capacity to meet future production requirements

Clear and Unambiguous

Courts pay strict attention to the wording and language of any probationary periods. They must be clear and unambiguous. The court will not likely imply a probationary clause from the contract term “employee performance will be reviewed after three months”. However, in at least one case, the Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that the clause “Probation… six months” was enforceable and that the word “probation” in that case had a clear and unambiguous meaning that the employer could rely on to limit the employee’s notice. See for example: Nagribianko v. Select Wine Merchants Ltd., 2017 ONCA 540 (CanLII)

Best Practices for Employers

Best practice is for an employer to take steps to document the specific actions taken to determine suitability or unsuitability. Employers should:

  • Communicate the expected reasonable standards;
  • Inform the employee of any deficiencies as they arise;
  • Explain that any failure to address and try to improve deficiencies will result in termination of employment at the end of the probation period; and
  • Provide the employee with a chance to show that they tried to improve.

The important thing for employers to do, is to honestly treat the probationary period as a time for evaluation and training. The employer should work with the employees on a regular basis to determine if they can be transitioned into the role successfully. Actions taken to carefully assess, advise and remedy performance issues should be evident. Any decision about dismissal should not be made at the last moment, give regular performance review so that a decision to terminate prior to the end of the probationary period isn’t a surprise to anyone.

If you are interested in learning how to update your employment contracts to include a probation period, take a look at my article “How to Change Employment Contracts” or feel free to contact me.

Tips for Employees

Anyone terminated from their employment, whether within a probationary period or otherwise, should seek legal advice. 


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.

COVID-19’s Effect on Reasonable Notice of Termination

COVID-19 is having significant economic impacts on both employees and employers. Mass layoffs are happening across Canada despite government initiatives to avoid them. Many employers are considering staff cuts to remain profitable. While terminating employment for legitimate business reasons (such as a downturn in the economy) is lawful, generally speaking, an employee terminated in these circumstances is entitled to reasonable notice of termination, or pay in lieu of notice.

What is Reasonable Notice?

Courts require employers to give terminated employees “reasonable notice” or pay in lieu of notice upon termination.  Such notice is based on a variety of factors to assist the employee in finding comparable employment.

In doing so, the courts consider the following criteria:

  1. The character of employment. For example, general labourer, middle manager, executive, professional, technical worker, etc.
  2. The length of the employee’s service. Employees are generally entitled to a longer notice period the longer they have been employed.
  3. The employee’s age. Employees close to retirement are generally entitled to a longer notice period.
  4. The availability of comparable employment.

For more information in general see my earlier article “How much notice/severance should I get after being fired?“.

Reasonable Notice in a Poor Economy

The state of the economy can influence the availability of comparable employment and, in turn, can likewise affect the length of reasonable notice awarded by courts.

There are arguments on all sides as to how a general economic downturn should affect the reasonable notice period. Employees argue that it should be increased because they may have more difficulty finding new employment when jobs are scarce. Employers argue that they do not have the financial resources to provide employees with a longer notice period, and the pay and benefits that go with it.

Generally, courts in Ontario have favoured employees:

  • They have often sided with employees that an economic downturn should extend the notice period. For example, in Zoldowski v Strongco Corporation (“Zoldowski”), the Court increased the notice period in part because of the “economic climate of Southern Ontario and particularly the GTA”, and its impact on the employee’s ability to find alternative employment.
  • They have rejected the idea that a specific employer’s economic difficulties are a basis for reducing the reasonable notice period. In Michela v. St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic School (“Michela”), the Court of Appeal rejected this argument, reasoning that the “character of employment” factor was about the nature of the employee’s position, not the employer’s finances. While those finances may be the reason for the termination, “they justify neither a reduction in the notice period in bad times nor an increase when times are good.”

Nevertheless, COVID-19 may have a Different Affect on Reasonable Notice

Despite its decision in Michela, the Court of Appeal left open the possibility that a more general economic crisis may limit the reasonable notice period by approving and referencing the following passage in a 1982 High Court decision, Bohemier v. Storwal International Inc. (“Bohemier”):

It seems to me that when employment is unavailable due to general economic conditions, there has to be some limit on the period of notice to be given to discharged employees even if they are unable to secure similar employment within the notice period.

The reasoning in Bohemier suggests that, where there is a general economic downturn, evidence of difficulty finding a job cannot be used to extend a notice period as was done in Zoldowski. Employers may still have to provide a lengthy notice period based on the other factors, but not one that is unreasonable in the circumstances of the broader economy.

As a result, it is unclear how the general economic conditions created by COVID-19 will affect the reasonable notice period.

While employers ordinarily have difficulty relying on their financial hardship to reduce an employee’s notice period, COVID-19 is posing new legal challenges and how the law may evolve in the face of them is uncertain.

What is certain, however, is that we have entered unprecedented times. As always, we recommend that employers avoid premature layoffs or terminations without first seeking legal advice and understanding the consequences of those decisions.


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.

Negotiating Maximum Termination Pay and Severance Pay

Often, people who lose their job assume that if they receive any termination pay, severance pay, or pay in lieu of notice then they must have been properly compensated for being fired. This is far from the case. There are many factors and considerations a person should be aware of when figuring out what their termination entitlements are and more often than not an employment lawyer can help them get what is fair.

Statutory Minimum Notice Periods VS Common Law Notice Periods

Upon being fired, an employee is entitled to receive either (1) working notice, or (2) pay-in-lieu of notice. Working notice is not unusual but more often than not an employee is unhappy about being fired and an employer is concerned that the employee may do something to hurt the employer’s business while working to the end of the notice period. For that reason, employers usually chooses to terminate the employee immediately and, provide pay in lieu of notice.

The Employment Standards Act contains only the minimum entitlements that employees must receive on termination. Likewise, the Canada Labour Code sets out the minimum notice periods and severance entitlements for federally regulated employees (i.e. banking and telecommunications). However, just like the minimum wage, most employees should get a lot more than the minimums.

Judge made law or otherwise the law made by the Courts is called the “common law”. It entitles most employees to “reasonable notice”. Reasonable notice is much greater than the statutory minimums. Employees default to getting common law reasonable notice, unless they have a written employment contract that says otherwise.

There is no set formula to calculate common law notice. Generally, it is accepted that the average short-term employee is owed three to six months of notice, a long-term employee in a senior position may be owed up to 24 months or more, and somewhere in the middle for the other lengths of employment. How senior the employee’s position is will also be a factor. For example, a vice president or manager may be entitled to higher pay in lieu of notice that an employee doing a low level job, even for the same length of time. The employee’s age and the availability of alternative employment are also factors the Courts consider.

You can learn more about ‘Reasonable Notice’ and what the appropriate length is for different employees in my earlier article on “How much notice/severance should I get after being fired?.”

Termination Clauses

A termination clause in an employment contract alters an employee’s entitlements to common law reasonable notice. While it could technically provide for more, more often than not, employers include termination clauses to limit what an employee would otherwise get after being fired. Termination clauses cannot limit entitlements to below the minimums.

Where there is a valid and enforceable termination clause, an employee would not be successful if they attempted to seek more in a wrongful dismissal action. Fortunately, the Courts are often persuaded to strike out termination provisions. There are a number of different reasons that a court might find a termination clause unenforceable, such as pressure being put on the employee at the time of signing of the contract or where the limits on the severance pay are less than the minimums. If the termination clause is successfully struck out common law notice applies.

An experienced employment lawyer can offer advice on options on how to deal with terminations — for example whether one should sue for wrongful dismissal or alternately file a claim for termination pay or severance pay with the Ministry of Labour. It should be noted that a person cannot do both – sue for wrongful dismissal and file a claim for termination or severance pay. Seeking legal advice on rights is recommended to make the right decision. An employment lawyer can also help ensure payments for common law notice are maximized either through court action or a negotiated settlement.

When are termination clauses unenforceable?

In Movati Athletic Group v Bergeron, an employee had worked for about 16 months before she was terminated without cause. Purporting to rely on the termination clause in her contract, the company gave her the minimum entitlements under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA). The employee claimed damages for wrongful dismissal arguing that the termination clause in her employment contract was not clear enough to rebut the presumption that she was entitled to common law reasonable notice of termination.

The court found the termination clause not clear and as a result, the employee received three months’ pay in lieu of reasonable notice of termination instead of her statutory minimum entitlements. This case illustrates how important it is for employers to make all efforts to expertly craft termination clause wordings and how important it is for employees to have their employment contracts checked by a lawyer before deciding whether it is actually enforceable.

A court will not enforce a termination clause that excludes minimum statutory entitlements upon dismissal as set out in the ESA or Canada Labour Code. It is illegal for an employer to provide less than the minimum standards of the ESA or Code, even if the employee has voluntarily agreed to accept a lower amount. Additionally, a court will not enforce a termination clause if it has not been properly drafted. Poorly drafted clauses are very common and any ambiguity in the language in the termination clauses usually acts against the employer.

Termination Provisions must use the clearest possible language when trying to limit an employee’s rights upon termination. Failing to use explicit language leaves the door open for varying views and interpretations of intention and, therefore, the clause may be set aside by a court for ambiguity.  Courts resolve drafting ambiguities in favour of employees.

Laws on termination clauses continue to evolve. It is important to keep abreast of changes and consult with employment lawyers when employers are drafting clauses or when you, an employee, are terminated


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.

The Duty to Mitigate

When employees are dismissed with cause or without just cause, they are obligated to make a reasonable effort to find comparable new employment within the period of reasonable notice. This obligation is referred to as their “Duty to Mitigate”. In other words, employees have an obligation to do what they can to limit the damage they may have suffered from their termination. They cannot sit back and do nothing to find another job throughout the notice period and just charge that to their former employer.

In this article, we will review what employees and employers need to know about the duty to mitigate, including factors to consider and how courts decide on whether or not it is met.

What is the Duty to Mitigate?

The duty to mitigate is engaged within a reasonable period of time after an employee is terminated. Employers may argue in court that damages are not owed because the employee could have been re-employed if they tried harder to find a comparable job. In these cases the courts make thorough assessments of effort and consider a broad range of factors, circumstances and evidence. Awards will be significantly reduced if the courts find that efforts are found to be insufficient or if the employee unreasonably refused alternate comparable employment. 

Employees are expected to take steps that any reasonable person in a similar situation would take to find comparable employment and to accept that employment if it becomes available. Of note, though, a dismissed employee is not expected to accept employment that isn’t comparable to their former position. For example, a senior executive at one company wouldn’t be expected to take on an entry-level or mid-management position elsewhere just for the sake of being employed.

What does comparable employment mean?

The Ontario Court of Appeal has emphasized that “comparable employment” does not mean “any employment”. In order to be “comparable”, offers of employment must be comprehensive of the status, hours, and remuneration of the employee’s employment with his/her former employer.

How to Mitigate?

There are different ways that employees can mitigate their damages from a wrongful or constructive dismissal. An employee can accept:

  1. Re-employment with the same employer
  2. Employment in a non-comparable job position, or
  3. Employment in a comparable job position

Re-employment with the same employer

In some cases, an employer may dismiss an employee from their job, but offer a different position within the company or the same position but at a reduced pay rate or reduced level of responsibility.

Several judges have concluded that an employee can refuse an offer of alternative employment with the same employer where the work environment the employee would be returning to is hostile or would cause loss of dignity or embarrassment. Courts look at the entire context including the employee’s relationships with individuals at the former workplace, salary, and similar work conditions and responsibilities.

Lets look at three legal cases that cover different decision outcomes.

Dussault v Imperial Oil Limited

The Ontario Court of Appeal found that two employees who refused offers of employment from the purchaser of their employer did not fail to mitigate their damages since the employment that was offered was not “comparable.” In the case, the plaintiffs received less favourable offers of employment — offers where their salaries would be reduced after a period of 18 months and their prior service with Imperial would not be recognised. As a result, they both rejected the offers and brought a wrongful dismissal action against Imperial. 

The case went before the Court of Appeal during which time Imperial Oil argued that the motion judge erred in failing to find that the employees had not mitigated their damages by accepting comparable employment with Mac’s (who had purchased the previous employer). The Court rejected that argument and agreed with the decision of the motion judge that the employment offered by Mac’s was not comparable and that it would have resulted in an immediate, substantial decrease in the plaintiffs’ benefits, as well as a material drop in their base salaries. As well, the Court found there was no reason to depart from the well-established principle that “comparable employment” does not mean “any employment,” and requires an offer with comparable status, hours, and pay.

Benjamin v. Cascades Canada ULC

In this case, an employee chose to retrain instead of accepting a comparable employment offer and the Court fund that the duty to mitigate was not met. The Judge wrote: “retraining on its own is not evidence of a failure to reasonably mitigate damages; rather, if an employer can establish that comparable work is available and the employee made a choice to retrain and not to seek comparable employment, retraining would not constitute reasonable mitigation.”

This case indicates that retraining can be considered reasonable mitigation in certain cases but employers will not be required to fund retraining through the payment of reasonable notice for employees that could have otherwise secured a similar position instead. Interestingly, participating in retraining as mitigation in cases where no comparable employment is available may be considered as “reasonable”.

Evans v. Teamsters Local Union No. 31

In the third case the employee rejected the comparable employment offer and the duty to mitigate was not met. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that an employee has to accept alternate jobs offered by the employer as part of the duty to mitigate only if a “reasonable person would accept that opportunity”. Where a reasonable person would not return to work for the same employer then there is no need to return to the company that fired you just because it is offering a comparable job.

Re-employment with a Non-Comparable Job

There is no obligation to mitigate by taking a job that is not comparable and/or not in line with what the employees training, education and experience has prepared him for. As an easy example, a former CEO does not have to take a job at McDonalds after termination.

Employment in a comparable job position

Upon finding a new comparable job, an employee’s entitlements to reasonable notice end.

Conclusion

Employer tips:

  • Employers can reduce their potential liability by offering support to departing employees. Such measures can include career counselling, outplacement services, reference letters and notifications of comparable positions with their businesses or elsewhere. 
  • Offering positive references and making efforts to end things on good terms with employees will also reduce employer’s liability by making it easier for the employees to find a new position.
  • If the employee fails to take advantage of this assistance, the employer may be able to prove a failure to mitigate thus reducing company liability for wrongful dismissal damages.

Employee tips:

  • Employees should be aware that the onus is on them to make a reasonable efforts to seek comparable employment when dismissed.
  • Always create and keep a detailed log sheet of all efforts to find a new job. Keep dates and times listed for when you updated your resume, updated your Linked In or other social media platforms, join Indeed or Monster, saved jobs to consider, worked on cover letters. Keep a list of jobs you applied for and whether or not you got interviews. The more detail and effort included in your job  search logs the easier it will be to establish your attempts to mitigate.

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.

Employment Law for Bartenders, Waiters and Waitresses

Bartenders, waiters and waitresses, or “Liquor Servers” as they are referred to in the Employment Standards Act (“ESA”), are given special treatment under the law and by the Ontario Courts. While many of the ESA’s provisions apply equally to all types of employees, there are some important distinctions for liquor servers that hospitality employees and employers should know. This article is meant to highlight some of those important differences.

Minimum Wage

As of January 1, 2018, minimum wage for most workers in Ontario was increased to $14.00 per hour. However, the ESA permits lower minimum wage rates for certain designated groups of workers who receive tips as a significant portion of their income. Liquor servers fall into this category. Since January of 2018, the minimum wage rate for liquor servers is $12.20 per hour.

While the terms “Liquor Server” or “Bartender” are not specifically defined in the ESA, the relevant section on minimum wage provides helpful insight into whether an employee’s minimum wage rate can legally be lowered to $12.20 per hour. The ESA states as follows:

Determination of Minimum Wage
23.1 (1) The minimum wage is the following:
1. On or after January 1, 2018, but before October 1, 2020, the amount set out below for the following classes of employees:
ii. For employees who, as a regular part of their employment, serve liquor directly to customers, guests, members or patrons in premises for which a licence or permit has been issued under the Liquor Licence Act and who regularly receive tips or other gratuities from their work, $12.20 per hour. [emphasis added]

Minimum Wage After October 2020

As suggested in the above section, after October of 2020, the minimum wage rate for liquor servers will increase in accordance with a formula based on the Consumer Price Index. This formula is as follows:

Previous Wage × (Index A/Index B) = Adjusted Wage

In which:

“Previous wage” is the minimum wage rate that applied immediately before October 1st of the year;

“Index A” is the Consumer Price Index for the previous calendar year;

“Index B” is the Consumer Price Index for the calendar year immediately preceding the calendar year mentioned in the description of “Index A;” and

“Adjusted wage” is the resulting new minimum wage rate.

Termination, Reasonable Notice, and Wages

Like all employees in Ontario, liquor servers are entitled to a certain amount of notice, or pay in lieu of notice, when their employment is terminated.

That being said, for liquor servers, more often than not a significant portion of their income comes in the form of tips. Therefore, the biggest question I get as a Toronto employment lawyer, from both employees and employers, is whether tips should be included as wages for the purpose of pay in lieu of reasonable notice. The answer to that questions depends significantly on whether the bartender or liquor server has a valid employment contract that limits notice only to those minimums under the ESA.

Under the ESA, Wages Do Not Include Tips

Under the ESA, generally when an employer terminates an employee who has been continuously employed for at least 3 months, the employer must provide the employee with notice, or pay in lieu of notice. This pay in lieu of notice is often referred to as “termination pay.” The amount of written notice required by the ESA is as follows:

Employment Period Notice Length
3 months – less than 1 year 1 Week
1 year – less than 3 years 2 Weeks
3 years – less than 4 years 3 Weeks
4 years – less than 5 years 4 Weeks
5 years – less than 6 years 5 Weeks
6 years – less than 7 years 6 Weeks
7 years – less than 8 years 7 Weeks
8 years or more 8 Weeks

If an employee, by an enforceable employment contract, is only entitled to the minimums under the ESA, then that worker may NOT be owed tips. Wages under the ESA are defined as:

“Wages” means:
(a) monetary remuneration payable by an employer to an employee under the terms of an employment contract, oral or written, express or implied,
(b) any payment required to be made by an employer to an employee under this Act, and
(c) any allowances for room or board under an employment contract or prescribed allowances,
but does not include,
(d) tips or other gratuities,
(e) any sums paid as gifts or bonuses that are dependent on the discretion of the employer and that are not related to hours, production or efficiency,
(f) expenses and travelling allowances, or
(g) subject to subsections 60 (3) or 62 (2), employer contributions to a benefit plan and payments to which an employee is entitled from a benefit plan. [emphasis added]

Without an Enforceable Termination Clause, Tips Are Owed as Part of Termination Pay

Without an enforceable clause in an employment contract which limits reasonable notice to only the ESA minimums, the Ontario Courts ignore the strict wording of the ESA and require employers to pay tips as part of wrongful termination pay.

We can see an example of this in the case of Giacomo Violo v. Delphi Communications, Incorporated. Violo had worked as a waiter and bartender for a small restaurant in Ontario for 29 years. At the time of his termination, he was 51 years old. The parties did not have an employment contract, and the restaurant contended that Violo had been legally terminated due to excessive tardiness, alcohol abuse, and discourteous behaviour. After examining the evidence, including work records from the defendant and testimony from current employees, the Court determined that “there was no cause for the plaintiff’s dismissal.” The Court then turned to the issue of determining the reasonable notice period Violo was due. After examining numerous factors, including Violo’s age and the availability of similar jobs at the time he was terminated, the Court determined Violo was entitled to a reasonable notice period of 15 months. The Court then addressed the issue of damages, noting that tips would be factored in as such wages constituted a significant portion of his overall income: “… in 2010 he claimed $9,025 in tip income, almost as much as his income from wages.” In total, Violo was awarded $45,250, representative of his base salary and tips over the course of the 15 month notice period.

Final Thoughts

For employers, it is important to have a valid written employment contract with all bartenders, waiters, and waitresses. While the amount of notice cannot be below the minimum amount required by the ESA, employers can fashion contracts which provide for less notice than the employee would otherwise be entitled to at common law. When it comes to employees who receive customary tips, this can mean a substantial difference in the amount of termination pay. If you need assistance drafting employment contracts, we strongly recommend that you speak to an experienced employment attorney for guidance and assistance.

For terminated employees who received tips as a significant portion of their overall income, it is crucial to remember that they likely have rights under the common law that are far greater than the rights afforded to them under the ESA. It may be best for liquor servers and waitresses to sue their former employer in court for “wrongful dismissal,” seeking additional damages which would include tips. If you have been recently terminated from a position where you received tips as part of your income, we suggest that you speak to an employment attorney to help you determine the best course of action for your situation.


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.

How to Change Employment Contracts

Anytime you ask an existing employee to sign a new employment contract, it’s important to proceed cautiously. There are risks and pitfalls that wary employers may wish to avoid when making a change to their employment contracts. A misgauged approach may result in an unenforceable contract, or worse, result in a costly claim of constructive dismissal.

As set out below, the Ontario Courts have clarified generally two methods to change employment contracts. The first method is for when an employee consents and agrees to the changes, and the second is how to change employment contracts when the employee refuses.

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How much notice/severance should I get after being fired?

That’s a more complicated question then all of those “online severance calculators” make it seem. Before we delve into the factors which play a role, both employees and employers need a little context and exposition on how the Ontario wrongful dismissal system works.

Overview

Firstly, you need to understand that “notice” and “severance”, though often used interchangeably in common parlance, mean different things. Under the Employment Standards Act, severance pay is defined and is an amount of money an employer needs to pay an employee on termination if certain conditions are met. In addition to severance, employers must give notice of termination to employees.

Severance Pay

An employee is only entitled to severance pay if they have been employed for 5 years or more and:

  1. the termination occurred because of a permanent discontinuance of all or part of an employer’s business at an establishment and the employee is one of 50 or more employees who have their employment relationship severed within a six-month period as a result; or
  2. the employer has a payroll of $2.5 million or more.

If an employee is entitled to severance pay, they are to be paid severance in a lump sum amount equivalent to one week of non-overtime wages per completed year of employment up to a maximum of 26 weeks, within 7 days of termination.

Entitlements to severance are relatively well defined. It is the notice requirements of termination that require a more nuanced analysis.

Reasonable Notice of Termination

In Ontario, employers can give notice of termination to employees in two ways. Either,

  1. An employer can give notice ahead of time; or
  2. An employer can fire an employee right away, but provide “pay in lieu of notice” equivalent to what would have been earned over the notice period.

The first step in calculating the amount of notice depends on whether that employee’s termination is subject to a valid employment contract. If the employment contract contains a  clause that sets out the amount of notice an employee gets upon being fired and the contract is valid, then the employee is entitled only to the reasonable notice set out therein.  These contracts may be invalid or void ab initio (unenforceable from the beginning) for many reasons, including if they provide for less termination entitlements than the minimums established by Employment Standards Act.

If there is no contract, or the contract is not enforceable, then an employee is entitled to what the Ontario Courts call “reasonable notice”. Reasonable notice is always more than the minimum notice. The amount of  reasonable notice depends on many factors and is calculated by the Courts after considering all of the surrounding factors. Considerations include (1) age, (2) length of service, (3) character of employment and (4) availability of similar employment. Employees are entitled to more notice if:

  • they are older;
  • they worked somewhere a very short or a very long period of time;
  • their job was very specialized and it will be difficult to find comparable employment; or
  • the employer convinced them to leave another stable job.

An employee might also be entitled to further money on termination if the employer:

  • acted badly in the manner of termination;
  • fired you for a discriminatory reason;
  • fired the employee for insisting on his/her rights under the ESA;

Contact Justin W. Anisman

To contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing, call 416-833-8443 or email him at janisman@btzlaw.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning Zibarras 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.

 

Termination of the Employment Relationship in Ontario

Notice and Severance under the Employment Standards Act / The Minimum Standards

The Employment Standards Act, 2000 (the “ESA”) provides the minimum standards of employment with respect to, among many other things, overtime, hours of work, minimum wages, holidays, pregnancy and parental leave, and termination of employment in Ontario.

Under the ESA, employers are required to give their employees advance notice of termination in writing or, in the alternative, pay wages and continue benefits for the statutory notice period (commonly referred to as termination pay). With respect to the termination of a single employee (as opposed to mass firings or lay-offs), the minimum length of notice depends on the length of the terminated employee’s service:

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