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Housing

Supportive Housing Provider Paid Resident Workers Less than Minimum Wage

PHS has agreed to pay a tenant $2,600 in back pay for food preparation and cleaning work in his Victoria building.

Jen St. Denis 3 Sep 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

PHS Community Services Society has agreed to pay a tenant $2,600 in unpaid wages after he complained to B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch.

Bert Woldring lives at 844 Johnson St. in Victoria, a supportive housing building operated by PHS, a Vancouver-based non-profit agency. He did food preparation and cleaning work for four years, but said instead of being paid an hourly wage he received a $20 cash honorarium every day he worked.

Now Woldring is asking why a housing provider that receives government contracts to operate housing and other services didn’t pay tenants even the minimum wage for their work and why it took complaints from impoverished tenants to change the situation.

For years, Woldring said, tenants were paid much less than the province’s minimum wage to do kitchen and cleaning work in the building.

“The very people that they're being contracted to provide supportive housing to — how do they justify taking advantage of us like this?” Woldring said.

In an email to The Tyee, BC Housing said it’s supportive of non-profits using “peer staffing” to help people gain work experience and re-enter the labour market, but expects organizations to pay peers the same as any other employee. “Peer” is a term used for people with lived experience of poverty or drug use who often have barriers to conventional employment.

BC Housing said the agency has not yet reviewed Woldring’s case.

Woldring, 66, moved into the 127-unit building in 2016 after living in a tent city located on the lawn of Victoria’s provincial courthouse. The former care home was bought by the province for $11.2 million to house people who had been living in the camp, and PHS was selected as the housing operator.

Woldring said he was asked whether he would like to help out in the kitchen. He said yes, and between 2017 and 2020 he did regular three-hour shifts from Monday to Friday to help prepare and serve the evening meal to building residents. He worked on some statutory holidays, and said he was expected to train other tenants.

Woldring receives disability assistance, but single people on disability are allowed to earn up to $15,000 a year without their benefits being affected. Single people who receive social assistance benefits can earn up to $500 a month.

“It was serious — it wasn't really casual,” Woldring told The Tyee, describing the food preparation job he did five days a week in the building’s kitchen, which also included cleaning up after the meal was served. “We were depended upon. And if we weren't able to be there, we were required to provide a replacement who knew what they were doing.”

But instead of making an hourly wage, Woldring and other tenants were paid a $20-a-day cash honorarium, far less than what they would have made if they had been paid minimum wage.

Woldring decided to file a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch to try to recover the money; he also printed off complaint applications and handed them out to residents who had also been working around the building. He said several of his neighbours have also filed complaints.

Woldring shared email correspondence which he had received from the Employment Standards Branch and from Micheal Vonn, the CEO of PHS Community Services. According to that correspondence, the Employment Standards Branch officer calculated that Woldring was paid a total of $3,980 between 2017 and 2020, but would have made $5,869 if he had been paid the minimum wage, which was $10.85 an hour in 2017 but by 2020 had risen to $13.85.

According to British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act, employers must pay employees vacation pay equal to four per cent of their annual earnings and must pay one and half times the usual wage if the employee works on a statutory holiday. When the officer added those entitlements to what Woldring was owed, the total amount came to $2,599.

“PHS must follow Section 16 and pay the Complainant at least the minimum wage in effect throughout his employment,” wrote the branch officer who handled Woldring’s complaint. The branch officer also told PHS that the organization would have to pay interest on that preliminary amount if the complaint proceeded to a formal decision.

In an emailed response, Vonn replied that PHS would process a payment of $2,599 to Woldring.

Vonn declined to comment on Woldring’s complaint. She also refused to discuss whether PHS has changed any policies on employing tenants.

The Employment Standards Branch says it has received five complaints against PHS since 2016. One was filed in 2018, one was filed in 2019, and the remaining three were filed in 2020. Three of the complaints are still being investigated, one has been resolved with a settlement agreement and one has been withdrawn.

PHS also employs peer workers in overdose prevention sites, and some of those employees successfully fought to join the union that represents other PHS workers.

Woldring said he would not accept the $2,600 because he believes he should be paid the same wage as PHS Community Service’s unionized employees, who make between $26 and $28 an hour.

“They make good money, with all the benefits,” Woldring said. “We got our $20-a-day cash, and it didn't matter if it was a stat holiday — there was no extra money, and no time off.”

*Story updated on Sept. 9 at 10:32 a.m. to remove the name of the employment standards branch employee who wrote the correspondence to Bert Woldring.  [Tyee]

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