According to emails recently acquired by BNN Bloomberg, Tim Hortons, Canada’s signature coffee and donut company, is facing a hiring crisis in at least twenty-two of its locations. The chain — a stupidly outsize part of “Canadian culture” due to its ubiquity and marketing efforts — is struggling to acquire new workers and retain existing ones. General managers, echoing the histrionics emanating from other quarters of the service sector, are now panicking in the business press.
This should be no surprise. In the last decade, Tim Hortons has become synonymous with its toxic brew of low-wage, no-benefit, union-busting, precarious, part-time employment. It has leveraged the low-wage labor market to attain coffee chain supremacy. Tim Hortons is undoubtedly the country’s dominant coffee chain — year over year one of fast food’s most profitable franchises, with nearly 4,300 restaurants across Canada.
Workers recently interviewed by BNN Bloomberg explained that, in addition to wage frustrations, burnout remains a top employee issue. During the pandemic, the company made little to no changes to workplace safety policies. They denied their essential workers adequate paid sick days, with some franchises even requiring doctor’s notes for unpaid sick days.
Now, Tim’s is facing consequences for its tightfistedness: nobody wants to work for them.
While the US labor shortage has pushed wages up, Canada’s economy has rebounded without workers winning comparative concessions. Low-wage employers, however, are not yet out of the woods entirely. Clearly, sections of Canada’s working class — especially in the food industry — are intent on seeing workplace changes and are willing to hold out for them. Hundreds of thousands have left the sector altogether to hunt for a better life. For companies like Tim Hortons, the solution to their hiring crisis is clear — it’s time to pay up.
Founded in the mid-1960s by Ron Joyce and National Hockey League defenseman Tim Horton, Tim Hortons was acquired by Wendy’s in the mid-1990s. In 2014, the Brazilian-American investment firm 3G Capital merged the company with Burger King. These international acquisitions undermined the company’s long-enjoyed nationalist bona fides, causing franchisees to protest that local operators are as Canadian as maple syrup.
The franchise hustle can be a lucrative one. From the jump, prospective franchisees must be flush to get in the game. As Nora Loreto points out, “You must have a net worth of $500,000 and unencumbered access to $100,000 to even pass the franchisee pre-interview process.” Tim Hortons’ blurry franchise-holding company model means hard numbers are hard to come by — a situation that emboldens employers resisting labor improvements — but surveys have found that franchisees typically earn hefty six-figure salaries. Ten years ago, franchisees in Saskatchewan reported net profits of nearly $400,000.
None of the wealth enjoyed by Tim Hortons’ franchisees has trickled down. Like most fast food restaurants, Tim Hortons’ workers endure unacceptable orders. On the internet, stories detailing workplace travails abound — Tim Hortons is a place of wage theft, inconsistent scheduling, bullying, fighting for days off, and bad managers.
Affectionately referred to as “Timmie’s” by advertising copywriters, employees often refer to their time at the company as the “worst job of my life.” Evidently, the playful nickname does not make for more enjoyable labor. Holding the company accountable, however, is extremely difficult because franchisees and the parent company play hot potato over “who’s boss.”
Tim Hortons has made extensive use of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to propel their expansion in the 2010s. The federal government read: the public — therefore underwrote the company’s growth by providing a dispensable workforce. Franchises have gotten heat for abuses against temporary foreign workers, including tip and wage theft and threats of deportation.
Unions have long criticized TFWP for providing no pathway to citizenship, in addition to lacking provisions that ensure fair wages and prevent bullying or threats. Companies like Tim Hortons have hired thousands of temporary foreign workers to help turn healthy profits.
In the last few years, Tim Hortons’ poor labor conditions have become a liability for the company. In addition to complaints over price, consternation over non-Canadian ownership, and a nosedive in quality, the company’s routine attacks on workers have caused their public perception to tank. The company’s already flimsy reputation as an essential component of Canadian culture — representing neighborly behavior and hockey, for example — has been deeply damaged.
After Ontario raised its minimum wage to $14 in 2018, a number of franchises responded by cutting paid breaks, benefits, hours, uniform allowances, and free coffee, and some even prohibited accepting tips. Those franchisees included filthy rich heirs to the Tim’s throne, Jeri-Lynn Horton-Joyce and Ron Joyce Jr, whose appalling notice to their employees went viral in 2018. A franchise in Whitby, Ontario, even encouraged workers to contact then premier Kathleen Wynne to “let her know how your workplace will change as a result of the new law and that you will not vote Liberal in the coming Ontario election.”
Protests flared up across the country in support of Tim’s workers, headed up by the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign.
Documents obtained by the breach reveal that the protests and fair wage campaigns have terrified Tim Hortons’ parent company, Restaurant Brands International (RBI). When not engaging in flagrant union-avoidance tactics, Tim Hortons is keeping a watchful eye on labor organizing.
In spite of the barriers to organizing a franchise, a few Tim’s locations are indeed unionized. At York University, workers are represented by UNITE HERE 75 — which, as socialist.ca has noted, helped workers hang onto the benefits that other franchisees cut after Ontario’s minimum wage hike.
Tim Hortons’ hiring woes are of their own making. For decades, the company has coasted like any other fast food franchise: shafting workers to turn a buck. Now, even amid a recovering economy where workers are readily taking new jobs, their bill has come due. To stay in business, they will have to raise the wage floor for their workers.
Even Ontario’s Progressive Conservative fake-and-bake Labor Minister has joined the chorus in telling Timmie’s that better standards is an easy way to win applicants. Phony as Ontario Conservatives’ “pro-labor” image is, this fact demonstrates that Ontario’s labor movement has moved the needle during the pandemic.
Labor market squeezes have forced restaurants to say out loud the secret they prefer to go unsaid: that wages and other supports in food service have been too meager for too long. “Better pay, benefits, and balance” are now necessary to recalibrate the sector. If Tim Hortons wants to attract workers, the way forward is no mystery. Higher wages, benefits, protections, and fairness are on the menu now and for the foreseeable future — and workers are willing to fight to keep this carte du jour in place.