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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Kashrut agency denies coercion in labour case

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TORONTO — The Kashruth Council of Canada is defending itself against allegations that it’s pressuring a group of mashgichim to give back money it was ordered to pay them by the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

On Aug. 16, a ministry inspection found that over a five-month period in 2011, the Kashruth Council, which oversees the COR kosher symbol, had violated the Employment Standards Act with respect to minimum wage, public holiday pay, vacation time, work hours, and public holidays.

The ministry ordered the Kashruth Council to pay more than $10,000 in total to 58 present and former mashgichim (kashrut supervisors), which it did.

However, on Oct. 23, the agency’s director of operations, Jay Spitzer, sent an email to the 58 mashgichim, warning of a “protracted mediation process” – a reference to its appeal of the ministry’s ruling before the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) – and urging them to help shorten this process by signing a settlement agreement waiving their claim and returning the money.

The email said that “in order to complete this process, the OLRB requires that all the employees… sign the attached.” It did not advise the mashgichim to seek independent counsel.

Two days later, on Oct. 25, Spitzer’s email, along with the ministry’s order to pay, was leaked to FailedMessiah.com, an anti-haredi blog. It published the documents and claimed the Kashruth Council was pressuring employees to give back the money awarded to them by the ministry.

The Kashruth Council told The CJN that its supervisors are paid above and beyond the law, that ministry inspectors made calculation errors in determining the $10,000 figure, and that there has been no pressure on workers to sign over the money.

Spokesperson Richard Rabkin said that as of last Friday, 55 of the 58 kashrut supervisors named by the ministry inspection had signed the document. (The organization currently employs some 100  mashgichim, mostly part time.)

Rabkin said the negative publicity surrounding this issue stems entirely from a personal vendetta by a disgruntled former kashrut supervisor named Morley Rand, who was not among the 58 named in the ministry inspection report.

In a separate but related case in 2011 involving Rand, the Kashruth Council argued before the OLRB that its mashgichim were “holders of religious office,” which would have exempted them from the Employment Standards Act (ESA) entirely. The OLRB ruled that at least some mashgichim are regular employees and must be compensated accordingly.

In a statement on its website, the Kashruth Council said its overtime policy already meets the criteria for, in the words of a September 2010 ministry report, “a greater right or benefit to the employees” under the provisions of the ESA. It pays its mashgichim overtime after 10 hours on any given shift, instead of after a 44-hour week, as the ESA requires. It said it also offers mashgichim “generous” twice-yearly holiday bonuses. “Our mashgichim… are the lifeblood of our organization and our community.”

The Kashruth Council told The CJN that calculation errors account for most of the $10,000 the ministry said it owed to the 58 mashgichim.

For example, Rabkin explained, in the case of “working mashgichim,” who are paid in part by the Kashruth Council and in part by the establishments they supervise, the ministry inspector would have only seen the council’s portion, making it look like those mashgichim were getting less than minimum wage.

In an Aug. 27 email to all Kashruth Council mashgichim following the inspection, Spitzer said that “[the Ministry of Labour] officer who conducted the audit made her best effort to understand COR’s payroll/employment system, but the complexities of our setup are not easily absorbed.”

In an email to The CJN, Rabkin explained that when “when they realized that most of the findings of the audit were due to clerical errors in how the auditor captured COR’s data, a few of the affected mashgichim contacted the OLRB to inform the OLRB that they had no interest in pursuing the action. The OLRB itself raised the idea… that if the affected employees signed a release saying that they were not interested in pursuing the action, then the action would not proceed.”

He said most of the 58 mashgichim named by ministry were owed “insignificant” amounts, generally $5 or less.

One was owed $3,000 and the rest were owed $7,000 in total.

“The one mashgiach… owed a significant amount [$3,000] was Michael Klein.”

The Kashruth Council provided The CJN with a letter from Klein saying that he was “aware of the advantage of the overtime policy” and that he’s proud to work for COR. The letter concludes, “I am hoping... ‘Shalom,’ i.e. peace, will prevail in this matter.”

Klein, a current Kashruth Council mashgiach, did not reply to a request from The CJN to clarify the circumstances or reasons for writing the letter and returning the funds.

One mashgiach, who spoke to The CJN but asked not to be identified, said he was cautioned by a friend not to sign the document: “Who knows what you’re signing?”

He said Kashruth Council staff then paid him a visit at work. “They surrounded me, they pulled out my [unsigned waiver]” and others’ signed forms. “They’re showing me this one, this one, ‘You know him? Why don’t you sign?’” They left, saying, “‘I hope you’ll do the right thing,’ [but later, called] me back: ‘We’re still waiting.’”

The intensity of those demands seemed disproportionate to him. “Something must… be up if they really want my signature. That’s the scary part... They’re saying I’m the only one that didn’t sign. They’re really desperate… and it beats me. I don’t have any idea why.”

But Rabkin said no mashgiach was coerced. “COR… would never engage in any reprisal against an employee who chose not to withdraw or assert their rights.”

A statement of support for the agency, which was posted on its website and signed by more than 40 mashgichim, reads, “COR pays us overtime pay. COR pays us public holiday pay, vacation pay and all other compensation… we are disturbed by the efforts of a few individuals to distort COR’s pay policy.”

Most of the signatures weren’t from the 58 mashgichim named in the ministry order.

Suggesting that the online story was maliciously leaked by Rand because he holds a grudge against the Kashruth Council, Rabkin asked, “Why is one person… whipping up so much negativity towards a non-profit [community] institution?”

Speaking to The CJN, Rand replied: “It’s simple: follow the law. Why are they any different than anybody else? If they change and become the agency they should be… honest, treating employees with respect and paying them properly, I’ve… won. That’s my ‘vendetta.’”

An OLRB spokesperson said the board can’t comment on specific cases, which are confidential, but added it does advocate trying to reach a settlement in such instances.

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