Docking staff for losses not legal

‘Gas-and-dash’ death triggers reminder

After a gas station employee was killed last month trying to stop someone from driving off without paying, British Columbia employers were reminded they cannot dock employees’ paycheques for lost or stolen money.

Graham Bruce, B.C. Minister of Skills Development and Labour, told reporters that employment standards prohibit employers from deducting any cost of business from an employee’s paycheque. Companies face fines of up to $10,000 for repeated offences. A first offence brings a $500 fine.

The reminder came after Bruce met with Chett Crellin, the grandfather of Grant De Patie, who was killed by someone trying to steal gas worth $12.30. Police believe that when De Patie tried to stop the 16-year old driver from leaving, he became trapped under the car and was dragged for more than seven kilometres.

Crellin said De Patie was fired from an earlier job because the employer docked his wages after a similar “gas-and-dash” and De Patie challenged the deduction.

Section 21 of the Employment Standards Act clearly prohibits employers from taking deduction from wages for “any purpose,” and fines have been mandatory since 2002, said Pat Cullinane, director of employment standards.

Since June 2003, there have been 31 cases where an employer was judged to have violated the act and forced to pay the first-time offence fine of $500. No employer has faced a fine of more than that, said Cullinane.

Most large employers know they can’t take deductions from paycheques because the employment standards act is unequivocal. “You can’t deduct business costs,” said Lindsie Thomson, a lawyer and author with Vancouver-based employment law firm, Harris and Company.

But smaller employers that aren’t as familiar with employment standards may not be so aware. And judging from the number of complaints from employees, it is clearly something that still happens, she said.

The question that may arise is what constitutes a “business cost” because it is not well defined in the act, she said. But it is clear the tribunal adjudicating these complaints takes a broad view, she said.

Speeding tickets, costs arising from staff misconduct, shortages, costs for unreturned tools, even money taken by an employee can’t be deducted, she said.

It’s to protect workers from arbitrary and unjustified deductions by the employer, she said, adding that there are avenues of recourse for the employer. “If an employee steals from you, your recourse is to sue them for the money back. You can’t shortcut that process by just deducting it off their pay.”

B.C. is not the only jurisdiction with such restrictions. Section 12 of Alberta’s Employment Standards Act clearly states employers cannot deduct from employees’ earnings unless they are permitted by court order, authorized by a binding collective agreement or personally authorized in writing by the employee.

“The B.C. and the Ontario legislation are startlingly similar in respect to the fact that you cannot make deductions from wages without an agreement in writing,” said Connie Reeve, partner in the Toronto labour and employment group of Blake, Cassels and Graydon.

The principle is you cannot deduct for faulty work or cash shortages, she said. “It prevents employers from engaging in self-help remedies and puts them in the position of an ordinary creditor. They don’t get special rights just because they are in control of the wages.”

This has been the law for some time, but now and then employers are surprised to hear about it, she said.

She added that in some cases it is possible to deduct from wages, but it has to be an agreement in writing. For example, if an employer pays for an upgrading course and the employee agrees in writing to stay with the organization for a certain period after completing the course, but leaves, then the employer could take costs from the employees final wages, she said.

And while the law in Ontario is similar to that in B.C., either many more employers are ignoring it, or many more employees know their rights in Ontario.

Belinda Sutton, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Labour, said that from April 2004 through the end of January 2005, the ministry had received 632 complaints for “unauthorized deductions,” of which 465 were ruled to be violations.

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