Ministry of Labour's latest inspection blitz targeted 103 workplaces where two or more violations were discovered in the past three years. Only 28 employers were fully compliant with the law.

Once burned, twice shy. So goes the age-old adage. But according to the Ministry of Labour’s latest inspection blitz, it doesn’t always apply to bosses breaking workplace laws.

Almost three-quarters of employers with a “history of non-compliance” — the targets of the ministry’s latest round of inspections — were revealed to be still violating employment standards, according to a detailed breakdown of the investigations requested by the Star.

The so-called “zero tolerance” blitz targeted 103 workplaces where two or more violations were discovered in the past three years, in sectors where precarious work is a growing issue like gyms, maintenance, and security services. Only 28 employers were fully compliant with the law.

“It is the Ministry of Labour’s responsibility to put a stop to these practices,” said John No, a lawyer focusing on workers’ rights at Parkdale Community Legal Services. “Unfortunately for a lot of workers, it’s not the first time they’ve been cheated.”

Some of the most common violations were around excess hours of work, public holiday pay, shoddy recordkeeping and overtime pay. The ministry said it recovered $125,267 in unpaid entitlements to workers and that all employers voluntarily complied with orders to pay. It issued 42 fines ranging from $250 to about $300.

“Employees deserve to be paid for the hours they work. We continue to be vigilant to ensure all working Ontarians receive their entitlements under the Employment Standards Act,” said a labour ministry spokesperson, Janet Deline, adding that tactics included educating employers, proactively inspecting workplaces, and fining or prosecuting bosses where necessary.

“The latest figures show that simple education of employers is not sufficient,” No said. “There has to be strong disincentives, strong enforcement measures put in place to ensure that workers are not being exploited or cheated out of their wages.”

The Ministry of Labour has taken steps over the past year to ramp up enforcement: Since 2015, the number of lawbreaking Ontario bosses facing prosecution has risen by more than 40 per cent, according to ministry statistics.

Proactive inspection blitzes do not need to be triggered by individual worker complaints. Instead, they focus broadly on high-risk sectors and can be initiated at the will of the ministry — although employers are given advance notice that the inspection will take place.

The companies targeted in the latest round included GoodLife Fitness, which in a previous blitz was in violation of five different workplace laws, including poor record keeping and failure to post required information in the workplace. This time, the contraventions included improper deductions from wages, excess hours of work, and overtime pay violations.

In a statement to the Star, a GoodLife spokesperson, Krista Maling, said the organization took “immediate steps to rectify the matters by, among other things, amending our onboarding procedures and educating/reminding our management team about the relevant provisions of the Employment Standards Act.”

“Specifically, the ‘unlawful deductions from wages’ finding included a practice of informing employees verbally (versus in writing) that their contribution to their benefit program would be deducted from their wages,” she added.

According to the “zero-tolerance” inspection records, Burlington-based Solar Wave Energy, which installs solar pool heating systems, had the single highest number of infractions with eight. But owner Jesse Christink said the findings say more about Ontario’s confusing web of employment laws than deliberate wrongdoing.

Christink said several employees who were fired some years ago filed a complaint against him seeking overtime pay and public holiday pay. But under existing legislation, swimming pool installers belong to a group of dozens of professions that are exempt from paying certain entitlements. Christink said the ministry ruled his company qualified for the exemption, and the case was settled privately.

But when inspectors arrived for the latest inspection blitz, he said, they determined he was not in fact eligible for the exemption — and dinged him for such contraventions as excess hours of work, overtime pay and public holiday pay.

“It’s kind of a case of one hand of the government doesn’t know what the other hand is doing,” Christink told the Star.

Critics have long called on the government to remove the existing array of exemptions and special rules that exclude some jobs from minimum standards, which they say leads to widespread confusion, complicates enforcement, and costs workers up to $45 million in potential earnings each week.

Christink said he agrees the exemptions should be removed for simplicity’s sake — and says he’s decided to operate as if they don’t exist because the rules are “very, very difficult to interpret.”

No says the government could enact other practical measures for more effective enforcement.

“The Ministry of Labour has the ability to issue fines,” he said. “They have in the past few years increased the use of them but it should be consistent practices. There should be interest on the unpaid wages so there’s no incentive to put off paying the orders to pay.”

The government should crack down on companies who simply shutter and open up under a new name to avoid paying workers wages owed, No said. Serious repeat violators could also be required to post a bond — money held in trust by the ministry — to guard against future infractions, a measure already implemented in jurisdictions like California.

Otherwise, No argues, it is workers who pay the price.

“They can’t pay their rent, they can’t pay their groceries,” he said. “Emotionally, they feel low — they feel as though they’ve been cheated.”