TORONTO — Exactly three months to the day since nearly 100 workers at Hamilton broadcaster CHCH were unexpectedly fired, the federal government has launched an investigation into unpaid wages that may be owed to former employees.
In a letter sent to former CHCH workers earlier this week, Employment and Skills Development Canada said it was conducting an investigation under the Canada Labour Code with regard to wages and other amounts that could be paid out to them by Channel 11 Limited Partnership.
Channel 11 LP filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 11, 2015 and 129 full-time and 38 part-time employees had been fired without severance and 81 employees were then offered positions with a new company — many on a casual basis, according to Southern Ontario News.
In its federal filing, Channel 11 LP, the company that provides the station’s news content — which is owned by Toronto-based Channel Zero — reported it had less than $60,000 in assets and $4.4 million in debt.
Karen Lonz, the former on-air director for CHCH for more than 13 years who was fired in December, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the investigation and hoped it would lead to the paying out of severance to former employees.
“It’s great that someone is looking into it, but I’m sure that they dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s in whatever they’ve done. Everything that we’ve been told is that some of their maneuvers are legal, they’re not ethical, but they’re legal,” Lonz said.
“I think the whole issue of worker’s rights needs to be examined in this country because things like this are happening every day to different businesses and different employees where people who think their job is secure and then from one day to the next it’s not, there’s really nothing that’s being done to help people.”
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The letter, sent by Labour Standards Inspector Sylvie Hilliard, stated that due to the fact Channel 11 LP filed for bankruptcy, Employment and Skills Development Canada is “unable to take any actions” under the labour code to obtain unpaid wages from the company.
Yet it added that in the event that the recovery of wages from Channel 11 LP becomes impossible or unlikely, the director of its general partner “may be found to be jointly and severally liable.”
Hilliard said in the letter that he would be monitoring the bankruptcy proceedings and will be communicating with former employees as the investigation moves forward.
He added that former CHCH workers may be eligible to receive compensation from the Wage Earner Protection Program, which provides compensation up to $3,800 to eligible employees of a bankrupt employer for unpaid wages, vacation, severance and termination pay.
Cindy Csordas, a former news reporter for CHCH for almost 15 years who was also fired in December, said the investigation offers a sliver of hope to employees who were abruptly let go.
“This investigation launched by the federal government offers some hope that down the road we may see our severance,”
“If they do come to some kind of conclusion that what Channel Zero did was illegitimate and was actual union busting and they’re found guilty in some sense and they have to pay the something like $1.4 million in severances, I think that would send a message to other companies that you can’t get away with it.”
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Employment and Skills Development Canada confirmed in an email to Global News that the investigation has been launched, but could not comment on specifics.
“What we can say is whenever issues arise, we investigate fully. Our goal is to ensure workers are protected and that their rights are respected,” spokeswoman Julia Sullivan said.
“If someone is found to have broken the law, including the Canada Labour Code, the Labour program will take whatever actions are appropriate.”
Lonz added that although the company could face repercussions from the investigation in terms of fines, that wouldn’t necessarily mean former employees would see any severance.
“I hope they’re nervous, frankly I hope they’re unable to sleep with worry that the federal government is looking into their dealings, because it’s definitely shady what they’ve done and we all know that,” she said.
“Anybody who’s looked at this case knows that. The way that they’ve handled things, the way that they threw people out the door with 15 minutes notice, some people with health problems, they didn’t give a care in the world for those people.”
With files from Jennifer Mulrine, Andrew Russell and Sean O’Shea