A Metro Vancouver woman is spearheading a class-action lawsuit against a fitness giant she says has been systemically failing to properly pay her as a method of increasing company profits.
Long-time group fitness instructor Sharon Freeman says she’s been taken advantage of by her employer, Steve Nash Fitness World (SNFW), since it merged with another gym she worked at back in 2009.
“It’s really shocking. I felt betrayed,” Freeman said in an exclusive interview with Global News.
The class-action, which covers current or former non-managerial employees of the company from July 2017 to July 2019, is seeking $20 million in damages.
The lawsuit claims hours are improperly recorded and/or altered as a method of increasing the defendant’s profitability.
The company is also alleged to have systematically ignored the employment contract in a way that deprived employees of proper payment for overtime, statutory holidays and contractual wage rates for hours worked.
These breaches are alleged to have increased the business’s profitability.
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“We love what we do and they bank on that,” Freeman said. “They try to put the spin on it that you do it because you love it, because you’re passionate about it, you don’t do it for the money.”
Freeman says she’s owed well over the $15,000 she calculated for the last two years alone, but she is unable to sue beyond that time period.
Most employment-related claims in the province are subject to a two-year limitation period by B.C.’s Limitation Act, which came into effect in 2013.
Investigation goes deeper
Freeman, who has been working at the gym since 2004, says it all began last November when she realized she wasn’t paid properly for a statutory holiday she had worked and asked her company’s payroll department about it.
Her research expanded from the company’s employee handbook to the province’s Employment Standards Branch (ESB).
Her investigation led her to believe the company wasn’t paying her properly and that there are many others like her.
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“As employees, especially, we have rights,” Freeman said. “If you’re not bound by a collective agreement or a union, then you default to the Employment Standards Act.
A separate investigation unrelated to the lawsuit is underway by the ESB, which says its received multiple complaints about the company.
“These are the minimum standard requirements of the employer,” Freeman said. “Minimum! So we are not even having the minimum met.”
Allegations of intimidation
The lawsuit also alleges there has been employee intimidation from superiors related to Freeman and other employees discussing legal options available to enforce their rights.
It’s alleged that when their employer found out, Freeman and her colleagues were questioned about their involvement in any possible legal activity and were singled out.
“That’s how I began to get harassed,” Freeman said. “Kind of followed around, other people trying to get information on what I might be up to, who all is involved. Just because I filed a complaint to employment standards, and at that time they didn’t know whether or not there was going to be a lawsuit or not.”
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Freeman says she was falsely told by a superior that other employees had been complaining about her, in an effort to intimidate her.
She says she was told to attend a disciplinary meeting with human resources and was denied the opportunity to have a third party witness.
During that meeting, Freeman says she was falsely accused of violating company policies, such as a confidentiality policy and the Personal Information Protection Act.
“I got accused of harassing fellow employees, asking them for details of their work and conditions of their work, and by calling them on their personal phone and email when I had only been in contact with one person,” Freeman said.
“That person is a personal friend of mine so we had been in contact.”
Freeman says she also hasn’t been on company premises since mid-December when she began a voluntary leave.
“I started to experience a high level of anxiety, a little bit of paranoia, maybe even to the point where I felt afraid to leave my house because of who might be following me,” she said. “It was really, a really awful experience.
“I had to go seek medical help and I’ve never experienced that level of anxiety,” she added.
Company denies wrongdoing
In a statement, Steve Nash Fitness World’s management team said the company values their team members and compensates them “fairly and in accordance with the employment laws in B.C.”
The statement goes on to say they’re aware of the civil claim “commenced by an inactive employee over the issue of her compensation,” and says that same employee “made essentially the same claim to the Employment Standards Branch.”
“While SNFW respects the right of this employee to put issues like this before the ESB and the courts, SNFW denies her allegations and will vigorously defend these claims,” the statement continues.
The company declined to give any further comment as the matter is now before the courts.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. Steve Nash Fitness World has not yet filed a response to the allegations.
Basketball great Steve Nash, who grew up in Victoria, has also taken the company to court to have his name removed from the 23 clubs in B.C. profiting from his brand.
Freeman says that case highlights how the business’ bottom line is about profits over people.
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Freeman said last year’s $7.5-million settlement in a similar class action against Goodlife Fitness provides hope for systemic change within the industry.
“My goal by pursuing this is to show people that we do have a right to speak up, that we shouldn’t be muzzled by an employer or anybody,” Freeman said.
The Ministry of Labour said the advice to any non-unionized worker with a complaint is to go to the Employment Standards Branch website or to call at 1-800-663-3316, or go to one of their head office locations to file a formal complaint.
WorkSafeBC also offers a toll free line (1-888-621-7233) to call and report incidents of bullying and harassment.