“Overtime Pay Held Up”


By Janet Nicol

DARA FRESCO, a 34-year-old head teller at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto made headlines earlier this year when she announced a class action claim against her employer for non-payment of overtime.

Doug Elliot, a lawyer involved in the case, calls the suit the “largest unpaid class action ever launched in Canada. We believe it will establish an important class-action precedent”

The statement of claim alleges CIBC nonmanagement employees are assigned heavy workloads that cannot be completed within standard working hours, and that, at least in Fresco’s case, she was told not to claim any of it as overtime. Fresco continues to work at the bank after filing the court claim in June.

The suit is seeking $600 million in damages on behalf of 10,000 current and former customer service staff. CIBC has responded that the company has a “clearly defined” overtime policy that “exceeds legislative requirement.”

The suit could take some time. Even the first step, having the lawsuit certified-that is, considered a legitimate class action suit-could take as long as a year.

Similar lawsuits in the U.S. have forced employers to pay overtime at Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Taco Bell and Radio Shack. Class action suits are less common in Canada, but if Fresco succeeds, thousands of bank workers will benefit.

Since women began filling bottom-rung bank jobs in large numbers in the mid-1900s, they have complained of poor working conditions. Trade union organizing drives in the banks started in the 1970s, but either failed or resulted in too few bargaining units to make a difference. A small feminist union in B.C. woke up the labour movement in 1976, organizing 22 bank branches in B.C. and Saskatchewan. The Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC) managed to sign on 700 bank employees, gained a significant legal victory to unionize branch by branch and publish a book [An Account to Settle).

In a recent telephone interview, Jean Rands, a founder of SORWUC, said unpaid overtime was a key issue back then. The banks “smartened up for awhile” after the organizing drive, she said, and paid overtime to keep the unions out.

A year after SORWUC began organizing, eight women bankworkers in Willmar, Minnesota, risked jobs, friends and the opposition of church and community to embark on the longest bank strike in their country’s history. Their isolated and valiant struggle was documented by Lee Grant in a film called The Willmar 8.

Today, banks are still largely unorganized, with employees experiencing layoffs and few improvements to their wages and benefits. Organized bankworkers are represented by the United Steelworkers or the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union ata small number of bank branches and credit unions scattered across the country.

Fresco claims she is owed about $50,000 for the two to five hours of additional work she says she’s put in every week during her 10-year career. She currently makes an annual salary of $30,715.

Elliott and his firm and are working with lawyers across Canada to establish that CIBC is violating the federal labour code by denying overtime pay to employees. The Toronto law firm has set up a web site (www.unpaidovertime.ca) where CIBC employees can register. Hundreds of frontline CIBC staffers have registered online to keep abreast of the proceedings.

CIBC is Canada’s fifth-largest bank and posted a profit of $807 million in its second quarter, ending April 30, up from $585 million in the same quarter a year ago.

Reprinted from Herizons magazine, Winter, 2007.

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