Madeleine Miller started work­ing part-time at a Kanata, Ont., Tim Hor­tons as soon as she turned 15. She found her work sched­ule er­ratic. She’d of­ten be sched­uled for a three-hour shift on the week­ends, but would then be asked to stay much longer on busy days. Some­times, her boss would then re­nege and cut back those ex­tended hours.

She saw peo­ple, in­clud­ing a re­cent im­mi­grant try­ing to save for higher ed­u­ca­tion, sent home early sev­eral times be­cause of slow sales.

“I never knew how much money I was go­ing to be mak­ing and I could never plan any­thing around my sched­ule,” said the now 16-year-old who quit her job af­ter eight months to fo­cus more on school.

The prac­tice of send­ing work­ers home early falls within the law, but fur­ther com­pli­cates life for pre­car­i­ous work­ers in low-wage jobs and may be detri­men­tal for busi­nesses in an in­dus­try with high em­ployee turnover.

Restau­rant Brands In­ter­na­tional, the par­ent com­pany of Tim Hor­tons, did not re­spond to ques­tions, but emailed a short state­ment.

“Most Tim Hor­tons restau­rants are op­er­ated by fran­chisees who are em­pow­ered to use their best judg­ment in manag­ing their em­ploy­ees and to com­ply with all pro­vin­cial em­ploy­ment reg­u­la­tions,” wrote spokes­woman Jane Almeida.

The cof­fee-and-dough­nut brand is not the only restau­rant chain that sends staff home dur­ing a quiet shift.

A for­mer man­ager-in­train­ing for McDon­ald’s Canada told The Cana­dian Press each lo­ca­tion tracks hourly sales and staff costs on a spread­sheet in-store and a for­mula de­ter­mines if they’re over- or un­der­staffed at any given hour.

The for­mer em­ployee, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity due to con­tin­ued ties to McDon­ald’s, said it was com­mon to send em­ploy­ees home if the for­mula re­sulted in a plus one, two or more.

“Restau­rants try to bal­ance em­ployee pref­er­ences and the re­quire­ments of the busi­ness, while at the same time com­ply­ing with the law,” wrote McDon­ald’s Canada spokes­woman Kris­ten Hunter in a state­ment, adding that’s the same for lo­ca­tions op­er­ated by fran­chisees or the cor­po­ra­tion.

She also did not re­spond to ques­tions.

Cut­ting sched­uled shifts is le­gal and al­lows busi­nesses to make staffing changes ac­cord­ing to busi­ness needs, said Marc Ro­drigue, a senior as­so­ciate at Fasken Martineau Du­Moulin LLP.

“If a fast-food es­tab­lish­ment has no cus­tomers com­ing in, it’s not mak­ing money, frankly,” he said. “Maybe you don’t need to have 10 peo­ple on. Maybe five peo­ple is good enough.”

Pol­icy-mak­ers have tried to strike a bal­ance and of­fer some pro­tec­tion to busi­nesses in those cir­cum­stances, while al­low­ing a level of cer­tainty for em­ploy­ees, he said.

At least in On­tario, the three-hour mark is typ­i­cally the time em­ploy­ees would get sent home, he said. Pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tion states that is the min­i­mum amount of time an em­ployee who reg­u­larly works more than three hours a day must be paid for if their shift is can­celled.

But just be­cause a com­pany meets the min­i­mum work hours doesn’t mean it hasn’t breached a worker’s em­ploy­ment agree­ment, said Su­nira Chaudhri, a part­ner with Le­vitt LLP in Toronto.

If an em­ployee’s con­tract states, for ex­am­ple, that they will work a 40-hour week, but man­age­ment con­sis­tently cuts their shifts to half that, “that’s a ma­te­rial change and, oh, I have one heck of a law case on my hands,” she said.

It may be that em­ploy­ers have worked the abil­ity to change em­ployee shifts with lit­tle no­tice into their con­tracts, she said.

“I think it sets peo­ple up for pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment,” she said, ref­er­enc­ing a term that tends to mean work that is in­se­cure, and with­out the ben­e­fits and pro­tec­tions af­forded to full­time, per­ma­nent staff.

An­drew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer and ac­tivist, agrees “there’s a range of prob­lems when it comes to short­ing peo­ple on shifts.”

In ad­di­tion to an un­steady in­come, em­ploy­ees could have trou­ble co-or­di­nat­ing their work hours with a sec­ond job or child­care, he said. Se­cur­ing safe trans­porta­tion could be a dif­fi­cult for shifts that end late at night or early in the morn­ing.

Con­sis­tently short­ing em­ploy­ees’ on hours can hurt busi­nesses, too, said Langille, lead­ing to higher labour costs thanks to turnover.

“If it hap­pens too fre­quently, your em­ploy­ees are go­ing to go find an­other job.”


Dur­ing a slow day at fast-food restau­rants it’s typ­i­cal for man­agers to cut em­ploy­ees’ sched­uled shifts short,


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