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Class-action lawsuit against University of Victoria over wage freeze can proceed: B.C. court

Students around the reflecting pool in front of the McPherson Library building on the University of Victoria campus in Victoria, BC.
Students around the reflecting pool in front of the McPherson Library building on the University of Victoria campus in Victoria, BC. (CP PHOTO/Don Denton)

A class-action lawsuit against the University of Victoria over a wage freeze that employees argue breached their contracts has been certified and can now proceed, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled Friday.

The three-member panel overturned a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that threw out Susan Service’s application to certify the lawsuit as a class action, with the panel saying that judge “misunderstood” some of the suit’s claims when making his decision.

Service is part of a group of non-union workers classified as “management excluded employees.”

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She argues the university wrongly forced a wage freeze on those employees after the B.C. Finance Ministry announced in 2012 that public sector management salaries would be frozen.

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The university was not legally authorized to institute that freeze, Service argues, which goes against the annual salary increases that were included in the contracts for as many as 134 workers.

The wage freeze also negatively impacted those employees’ pensions in the years 2013 to 2016, the suit argues.

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In the decision, Justice Susan Griffin said the lawsuit should go ahead as a class action, as the contract is a common issue between all employees who wish to sign on.

“I have little difficulty in concluding that a class proceeding would be the preferable procedure,” Griffin wrote on behalf of the panel.

No court has ruled yet on the allegations made by the case.

The university has argued that no other employee had raised issues about the wage freeze other than Service, who ultimately resigned from the university in 2016.

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The court also heard that the university had informed employees of the wage freeze while noting it would be temporary, and that the school planned to argue with the province that the freeze was “inequitable.”

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Griffin said the university’s defence that it had to change the employees’ contract to conform with the ministry’s order — and that the employees had accepted the freeze by staying silent and not objecting — raised common issues that made the lawsuit worthy of a class proceeding.

The university has not yet filed a response to the original claim, which was filed in 2018.

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