Class-action lawsuit against Steve Nash Fitness World highlights widespread problem

The struggle employees can face when it comes to fair and proper payment is being highlighted through a class-action lawsuit against Steve Nash Fitness World (SNFW).

The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that there is a systemic failure to properly pay employees as a method of increasing profits.

“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,” plaintiff Sharon Freeman said in an exclusive interview with Global News.

SNFW denies the allegations, which have not been proven in court, and the company has not yet filed a response to the notice of civil claim filed last week.

The new lawsuit comes about a year after a $7.5-million settlement in a class action against Goodlife Fitness.

“Gyms, or the fitness industry overall, are hotbeds for exploitation because they contain both of those things: a lack of information [for employees] and miss-classification,” Vancouver employment lawyer Lia Moody told Global news.

“Big class-action lawsuits are probably the most important, not because of the payout, but because of how they get people talking… class actions lead to more awareness being raised and people understanding they have rights too,” she added.

Moody, who is not involved in either case and is speaking generally about the multibillion-dollar gym and fitness club industry, said employees are often falsely classified as contractors, which can result in wage-related labour violations.

“For years, this industry operated on the basis that recruitment and consultation and prep time were things that you just didn’t get paid for, it was the cost of doing business,” Brock University Labour Studies professor Larry Savage said.

“It’s quite clear, according to employment standards acts across the country that these are work functions and they need to be paid,” he added.

Other provinces not immune

Savage said nearly three-quarters of the respondents in his recent Ontario-based study, which surveyed workers in the gym and fitness club industry, reported regularly engaging in unpaid work.

“In terms of tackling the problem, it really requires strong proactive enforcement by the employment standards branches in the ministry of labour,” Savage said.

Experts say it’s a problem plaguing several sectors, where wages are low and fear of losing a job is high.

In B.C., recent labour code changes – the first in nearly two decades – added protections for workers but still fall short according to the B.C. Federation of Labour (BCFED).

“What we’ve asked for is $26 million to be invested in employment standards, particularly for officers to help with this so when people have complaints, they have someone who can help them with that process,” BCFED secretary-treasurer Sussanne Skidmore said.

Skidmore applauds the removal of “self-help” kits that forced many employees to navigate the employment standards complaint process on their own; but Skidmore says other problems persist, including challenges in joining a union.

Goodlife Fitness locations in three Ontario cities ratified what is billed the first-ever union contract in the North American fitness industry, in part because of employee complaints about labour violations.

Freeman said she hopes her own lawsuit will help lead to systemic change so she and her colleagues can focus on carrying weights at the gym, rather than carrying the burden of having to work for free to meet their job requirements.

“People who are ESL, or maybe not quite adept to understanding, those people really get taken advantage of and it’s a shame. Shame on employers that do that,” Freeman said.

The Ministry of Labour advises any non-unionized worker with a complaint to visit the Employment Standards Branch website or call at 1-800-663-3316, or visit 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.

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