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Mixed reaction to Toronto eatery’s surcharge for employee health benefits

LOIS ABRAHAM, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, May 11th, 2017

Emma’s Country Kitchen in Toronto (Google maps)

Increasingly tight profit margins have restaurant owners seeking creative ways to compensate staff, but one Toronto eatery’s small surcharge to help pay for health and dental benefits has customers split.

The owners of Emma’s Country Kitchen recently announced they would include an optional three per cent surcharge on customers’ cheques to go toward benefits for full-time workers. They argued the fee – which would amount to less than 50 cents on the average bill – would be more transparent than raising prices.

“Instead of taking responsibility they are just downloading it to their customers,” Karen Hanna wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page, while Jeff Herrle countered, “Wow, truly remarkable commitment to a laudable ideal … and for this to happen in a time when many employers are contributing to the problem of precarious work under the auspices of ‘savings’ and ‘competitiveness.’ Well done!!!”

Server Agnes Ramos, who has worked at the brunch diner since September, is cheering the idea.

“I’ve been serving since I was 18 and I’ve never been able to receive benefits so it’s a great idea. I totally support it,” says the 27-year-old, who ultimately won’t be able to take advantage of the plan until she increases her hours from part-time.

Ramos was on her mother’s benefits plan until a few years ago.

“Now that I don’t receive benefits I’m less likely to go to the dentist or get my eyes checked. I actually just came back from the dentist a month ago and my bill was $400 and it was a bit hard for me to swallow, so it’s definitely a great addition and I hope that other people feel the same way about it.”

While some customers may gripe about the paying the surcharge, others could see value in a company that provides benefits, says Mike von Massow, a professor in the department of food, agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph.

“We care about child labour in other countries. We care about animal welfare. We care about a whole bunch of things, but why might we not patronize a company that provides benefits to their employees?”

In an industry where the average pre-tax profit is 4.3 per cent, absorbing additional labour costs could be difficult for restaurateurs.

But trying to pass those costs to patrons can be risky, says von Massow. It might result in customers nixing an appetizer, dessert or alcoholic beverage, reducing overall revenue for owners, or less tips for staff.

The Nook Creperie in Pembroke, Ont., recently began contributing to benefit plans for full-time staff after employees voted for that compensation over raises, says owner Joanna Els.

She covers 40 per cent of the cost of the benefits package employees choose – which includes dental, eyewear, prescriptions and life insurance – and they cover the rest. The benefits also cover massages and a portion of shoe insoles, which Els thought necessary in an industry requiring people be constantly on their feet.

“It’s definitely a large cost for everyone involved unfortunately,” says Els, who doesn’t believe her customers would appreciate paying a special surcharge.

“I think it’s necessary and it also gives us a bit of an advantage in an area where it’s very hard to find quality staff. And we hope when we invest the time and money into training them that we are going to retain them.”

Bill Pratt, owner of Chef Inspired Group of Restaurants and Trucks in Dartmouth, N.S., began paying half the health and dental premiums for his full-time managers and supervisors, who number about 30, in February “because it’s the right thing to do” and he wants them to continue working for him.

But he wasn’t able to make the move until his fifth year in business.

“In the restaurant game you’ve got to get through your first three years to see if you’re even going to last and it’s an expensive burden where you’re trying to manage your food costs and your labour costs and your overhead and pay your rent and keep your head above water – and then pay yourself on top of all that stuff,” Pratt says.

“So it’s just too much of a burden for a start-up restaurant to take on another cost because it’s pretty substantial to set it up.”

TTC confirms two unionized employees tested positive for drugs, alcohol

NEWS STAFF | posted Thursday, May 11th, 2017

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The TTC has confirmed that random drug and alcohol tests on two unionized employees earlier this week have come back positive.

Spokesperson Brad Ross told CityNews the first positive test was for alcohol while the second was for drugs.

Ross stressed that the employee who tested positive for alcohol isn’t a vehicle operator but holds a “safety sensitive” position with the transit commission.

“It was not an operator, I can tell you that, however we need to ensure that everybody who has a role to play in keeping the operations safe, is fit for duty,” Ross said.

The employee was given a breathalyzer test and blew over .04, which is the TTC’s threshold for impairment on the job.

“The breathalyzer is immediate and was positive so they are suspended with pay,” Ross added.

Further lab tests are being conducted to confirm the breathalyzer results.

The second positive test for drugs was confirmed late Wednesday but Ross did not elaborate on the employees position or what illegal substance was found in the test except to say that the level of the drug detected was over the cut-off established for the drug in question. Marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines and PCP are among the drugs being tested for.

The Amalgamated Transit Union fought the random testing in court, saying it supported incident-based testing, but argued that random testing was intrusive and a human rights violation.

A judge ruled in favour of the random testing, saying public safety outweighs privacy concerns.

“The fact that two failed tests were registered in the first three days of testing indicates that the TTC is justified in implementing this program,” said TTC CEO Andy Byford.

“While these initial test failures are concerning, the overwhelming majority of TTC employees, including those in safety sensitive positions, are professionals that attend work fit for duty and with the safety of the their

With files from The Canadian Press

Toronto Zoo staff walk off the job in contract dispute

THE CANADIAN PRESS AND NEWS STAFF | posted Thursday, May 11th, 2017

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About 400 Toronto Zoo employees walked off the job during a contract dispute. Two employees are seen blocking the entrance to the zoo on May 11, 2017. CITYNEWS/Bertram Dandy

More than 400 employees at the Toronto Zoo have walked off the job to back their contract demands and the facility will be closed to the public as of Thursday morning.

CUPE Local 1600 said the walkout began at midnight at Canada’s largest zoo after the two sides failed to come to terms on the key issue of job security.

“We are incredibly disappointed to have to take strike action, but the Toronto Zoo’s refusal to move on job security left us with no alternative,” local president Christine McKenzie said in a statement.

McKenzie said the union presented a “comprehensive offer” to the employer hours before the deadline.

But a spokeswoman for the zoo said it has been “more than fair and reasonable.”

Jennifer Tracey said in a statement that the union “has not provided any flexibility” and the zoo’s “fair and reasonable” proposals include a wage increase and “satisfactorily address the issues of job security.”

Tracey added that the facility is a not-for-profit charitable organization and the union demands are “simply unaffordable and do not reflect the financial realities facing the zoo.”

She said the employees are “well paid, receive an employer-paid pension plan, multiple weeks of vacation, and are covered by excellent health and dental benefits which includes more than 100 sick days per year.”

The union said picket lines would go up at the zoo’s entrances and that workers were being asked to show up at their regular shift times, but to report for picket duty.

McKenzie said the union’s bargaining committee remains ready to quickly resume negotiations and urged zoo management to provide their negotiating team with the “flexibility they need to conclude bargaining.”

“We have numerous animals on the verge of giving birth, a new health centre supposed to open, and thousands of animals that won’t be getting the level of care they should be getting,” she said.

“Ultimately, that ball is in the employer’s court.”

Tracey said the zoo’s animals will be taken care by “highly qualified management staff, many who were former keepers themselves.”

The 400 workers include zookeepers, maintenance, administration, ride operators, public relations staff and concession workers.

The strike comes two months after the zoo released their latest attendance report, saying more than 1.3 million people visited the site last year – that’s an increase of about 170,000 visitors compared to 2015.

4 dead in Hwy. 401 crash near Kingston

NEWS STAFF | posted Thursday, May 11th, 2017

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File photo of an OPP patch.
Four people are dead following a fiery crash on Highway 401 near Kingston.

Two more people are in hospital with serious injuries, Ontario provincial police said.

The crash happened west of Joyceville Road around 1:25 a.m. on Thursday.

Seven vehicles, including four tractor-trailers, a commercial truck and two passenger vehicles, were involved in the crash.

One of the cars was engulfed in flames. All four people inside that vehicle died. Their names have not been released.

“We don’t have any concerns about anything the tractor-trailers were carrying,” Sgt. Angie Atkinson told Breakfast Television.

There are detours in the area as police investigate. Atkinson said she anticipated the closures would be in place for much of the day.

20% of TDSB WiFi used for Snapchat, Netflix and Instagram; access blocked

NEWS STAFF | posted Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

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File photo of a phone showing the Instagram app. CITYNEWS

Reading, writing and arithmetic have some pretty entertaining rivals in Snapchat, Netflix, and Instagram

The Toronto District School Board announced on Tuesday that it was blocking WiFi access to those three sites, after they were found to consume a significant portion of the board’s daily network activity.

“These sites account for more than 20 per cent of our daily network activity and, on our older, slower network, make many necessary operational tasks, such as attendance, registration and report cards, nearly impossible to complete,” the board wrote on its website.

“This interim measure will help alleviate congestion and boost network capacity while minimizing the impact on teaching and learning.”

The board said it was working on providing a faster network, and said regular WiFi access is expected to resume in September.

Dozens of ground meats recalled due to E. coli

NEWS STAFF | posted Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

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File photo of ground beef. GETTY IMAGES/Justin Sullivan

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has issued a recall for dozens of ground and tenderized meats due to possible E. coli contamination.

The beef, veal, and pork products were sold across Ontario, including at Coppa’s Fresh Markets, Foodland, and Ghadir Meat Market.

Food contaminated with E. coli may not look or smell spoiled, but can still make you sick. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, mild to severe abdominal cramps and watery to bloody diarrhea.

Consumers should not consume the recalled products.

Click here to see the full list of products.

Maple Leaf Foods recalls some breaded chicken products due to possible toxin

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

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Maple Leaf Foods Chicken Breast Strips was recalled on May 9, 2017. CFIA

Federal health officials say Maple Leaf Foods Inc. is recalling various breaded chicken products because they may contain a toxin produced by Staphylococcus bacteria.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says the affected products, which were sold in Ontario and Quebec, include Maple Leaf brand Chicken Breast Strips in 840-gram packages with a best-before date of April 20, 2018.

Chicken burgers under the Sufra Halal and Mina Halal brand names in 828-gram packages are also being recalled.

Click here for a list of the recalled products.

The CFIA says food contaminated with Staphylococcus toxin may not look or smell spoiled and that the toxin produced by the bacteria is not easily destroyed at normal cooking temperatures.

Common symptoms of Staphylococcus poisoning include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and fever.

The CFIA says consumers with these recalled products should thrown them out or return them to the store where purchased.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.

Deputy Ontario NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to run for federal leadership

KRISTY KIRKUP, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

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NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh speaks about details regarding a draft regulation for public input that would prohibit the random and arbitrary collection of identifying information by police, referred to as carding or street checks at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Oct. 28, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is poised to launch a bid for federal leadership next week, The Canadian Press has learned.

Sources familiar with Singh’s plans say he will make the announcement at the Bombay Palace in Brampton on Monday night – the venue where he held an election party in 2011 when he entered provincial politics.

They also say his campaign will be led by Michal Hay, executive assistant to Toronto city councillor Michael Layton – the son of late federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

Supporters note Singh is also backed by other New Democrats, including Manitoba legislature member Nahanni Fontaine, party youth wing co-chair Ali Chatur, Quebec organizer and former Layton speech writer Willy Blomme and Peel school board trustee Harkirat Singh.

Singh, a 38-year-old criminal defence lawyer and turbaned Sikh, was named deputy to Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in spring 2015.

At the time of the announcement, Horwath said Singh had been a “dynamic force” in politics, adding he increased political participation among young people who viewed him as a community leader and mentor.

Inside the provincial wing of the NDP, Horwath also acknowledged Singh’s work to push for provincial reductions of auto insurance rates and improving awareness around precarious employment fuelled by temporary job agencies.

Singh, regarded as a young and energetic leader, has also received nods from Toronto Life magazine on its lists of “50 Most Influential” and “Toronto’s Best Dressed.”


Related stories:

NDP Singh calls for lower auto insurance premiums

NDP leadership hopefuls square off in wide-ranging first debate


There are four official candidates in the lengthy race to replace Tom Mulcair as NDP leader in October.

Current contenders include B.C. MP Peter Julian, Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Quebec MP Guy Caron.

First-quarter results from Elections Canada indicate Angus is far ahead of his competition on the fundraising front.

The report, which notes contributions from January to March 2017, showed Angus brought in more than $110,675, Ashton had $65,521, Caron had $57,235 and Julian raised $19,143.08.

The NDP says former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran and Ibrahim Bruno El-Khoury, the founder of a Montreal consulting firm, are not considered official candidates because they must submit nomination paperwork and a registration fee.

Stogran and El-Khoury’s names appear on the Elections Canada website as candidates while Singh’s does not.

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