Canada’s favourite coffee isn’t so fresh after all

Benefit cuts following Ontario minimum wage increase more than just economic theory

Graphic by Scott Lercher.

“It is with great regret that Ron Joyce Jr. Enterprise Ltd (Tim Hortons) finds it necessary to make the following changes to our incentive programs, paid breaks, and policies.”

So began the document that changed the lives of employees at one Tim Hortons location in Cobourg, Ont., just last week. The document – which employees were forced to sign in acknowledgment of its content – explained that due to a recent raise in Ontario’s minimum wage, workers would lose some of the benefits they had previously enjoyed.

This included breaks no longer being paid and changes to dental and health benefits that, depending on seniority, would force employees to pay between 50 to 75 per cent of the cost of their benefits. Workers would also lose incentives that Tim Hortons previously offered for working six months without taking a sick day, and for working on their birthday.

Perhaps the most dystopian facet of the letter – more dystopian even than offering minimum-wage employees incentives for not getting sick – is the borderline conversational tone the letter signs off with: “Sincerely, Jeri, Ron, and Lisa.”

The Jeri and Ron in question here are, in fact, Jeri Lynn Horton-Joyce and Ron Joyce Jr., the married children of Tim Hortons co-creators Tim Horton and Ron Joyce. They also own this particular franchise. The letter blames “the lack of assistance and financial help from our head office and from the government.”

The government the letter vaguely refers to is most likely lead by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Wynne ushered in Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, in November 2016, which brought about a jump in minimum wage from $11.40 to $14.00, with plans to increase it to $15.00 in 2019. This resulted in several Tim Hortons franchise operators, and other businesses in Ontario, resorting to dire measures in an attempt to recoup some of their inevitable losses.

That’s where Jeri and Ron are pointing the finger of blame. While they attempt to present themselves as struggling business owners through avenues like the Great White North Franchisee Association, Ron’s father, Ron Joyce Sr., is worth $1.39 billion today. Jeri and Ron themselves are currently scraping by as struggling business owners in their “winter home” in Florida.

However, Wynne, who has since called the Tim Hortons cuts “the act of a bully,” has something to gain from this massive jump in wages. It’s an election year in Ontario, and while six in 10 voters approve of the minimum wage increase, Wynne herself held a 70 per cent disapproval rating in June 2017 as the leader of the Liberal Party that is generally polling second to the Progressive Conservatives. Yet critics of Wynne and the new labour law note that such a quick and large increase in wages could result in thousands of potential job losses.

Whether or not the cause-and-effect between wage increases and job losses is a real phenomenon – a literature review by the Canadian Labour Congress in 2015 suggests that “it is difficult to say with conviction how the two factors are related, if they are at all” – a cynic could argue that Wynne’s highly-publicized anger at this franchise is a grab at votes. Restaurants Canada’s interim vice-president, Steve Virtue, has said that because of Wynne’s refusal to communicate with small business owners, the province has “pitted owners against employees.”

Let’s recap: Jeri and Ron, children of some of the most successful business owners in Canadian history, feel great regret about forcing borderline inhumane conditions on their minimum wage workers. They blame Katherine Wynne, another wealthy, powerful person. Wynne fires back, effectively asking the franchise owners to pick on someone their own size. The Tim Hortons corporate arm releases a statement waxing poetic about “brand values” and said it does not support this “rogue group” of restaurant owners. And while the corporate side of things, another group of rich and powerful people, bravely states that “Tim Hortons team members should never be used to further an agenda or be treated as just an ‘expense,’” Tim Hortons employees in Scarborough have been forced to surrender their tips into the till at the end of the day.

A lot of voices are being heard in this brouhaha, but none less so than those at its centre. Tim Hortons holds an important place in Canada’s economic landscape – not because of its saccharine, cloying depiction of itself as a producer of “Canadian values” in commercials and advertisements – but because of the function it serves for low-wage earners in Canada. It provides a stepping-stone job for students and part-time workers, but also offers an option for older people, people without the prerequisites to work in more specialized careers, and newcomers to Canada to make a steady income. The wages at Tim Hortons were never exactly lush, but the health and dental benefits offered – those same benefits now being denied at some Ontario locations – were enough to at least make the thankless job of food service relatively remunerative.

The silencing of the minimum-wage employee seems to be the end game for the other players in this game. In Whitby, Tim Hortons owners Susan and Jason Holman  “encouraged” employees to contact Wynne to protest Bill 148, suggesting in the same letter they tell Wynne that the employee will not be voting Liberal in the upcoming election. The fact that these employees are so vulnerable to the whims of franchise owners speaks to a gaping hole in Ontario’s labour laws, which makes it difficult for franchise workers to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.

While Bill 148 brings a lot of benefits to Ontario, from banning mandatory high heels to changes to paid vacation leave, employees within franchises such as Tim Hortons are still not able to easily, safely unionize. While Bill 148 did introduce “card-based” union certification, it still only applies to certain careers and services, leaving what are arguably some of the most vulnerable workers in Canada between a rock and a hard place.

There seems to be no real system of ethics for these wealthy business owners to adhere to – while there are rules in place to qualify you as a potential Tim Hortons franchise owner – one must have a net worth of $1.5 million, along with $500,000 in liquid assets, to even be considered – there seems to be a sort of free-for-all mentality when it comes to the well-being of the employees that keep the owners’ massive wealth flowing.

As the billion-dollar corporation continues to ignore the strife of its labourers, and its million-dollar phalanges continue to impose on their employees in unethical ways, the single mother, the student, and the newcomer to Canada working at Jeri and Ron’s Tim Hortons locations are left with the short end of the stick. While the greed of their employers continues its unchecked growth, and – even after Wynne’s minimum wage increase – employees find themselves taking home less money at the end of the day than before, one must wonder: where are those Canadian values we’re always bragging about?