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Everyday Legal Problems

You Have Options for Dealing with a Problem at Work

Understand your options for dealing with a problem at work.

“After two years in the same job, I was still at the starting wage. Most of my co-workers were making 20% more than me. My boss seemed happy with my work, so I gathered my courage and asked to meet to discuss a raise. She agreed, and increased my wage by 20%. Now I can afford to take a proper vacation.”

– Jade, Vancouver

If you have a problem at work, there are steps you can take. Your best course of action will depend on several factors. These include the nature of the problem, the kind of job you have, and how successful you think a particular step might be. You don’t have to go through these options in order. You can start with any of them.

Option 1. Talking with your employer

Many issues at work can be sorted out with an honest, respectful conversation. Talking with your employer can be quicker and less daunting than taking more formal steps. If done properly, it’s also less likely to damage your working relationships. Still, the thought of approaching your boss can be stressful. We offer tips to help you talk with your employer

Option 2. Writing to your employer

If a face-to-face discussion doesn’t work (or is just too stressful to even consider), put your thoughts in writing. We offer tips to help you write a letter to your employer.

Option 3. Making a complaint

If informal steps don’t work (or don’t fit the situation), you can make a formal complaint. Where you direct that complaint depends on what type of worker you are and what type of problem is involved. 

Employment standards complaint

Most workers in BC are protected by the provincial Employment Standards Act. If you’re covered (learn if you are) and your employer didn’t follow the Act, you can make an employment standards complaint. This is a written summary of how your employer didn't follow the Act, and a summary of events from your perspective. You file it with the Employment Standards Branch, the government office that administers the Act. The branch helps workers and employers resolve problems. We explain the steps involved in our page on making an employment standards complaint

If you work for a federally-regulated employer, you may be covered by the Canada Labour Code. Visit the federal government’s website for guidance on how to start a complaint.

There are strict time limits for making an employment standards complaint, so don’t wait too long!

Human rights complaint

If your company or another worker violates your human rights in the workplace, you can make a human rights complaint. For most workers in BC, this complaint is made to the BC Human Rights Tribunal, which deals with complaints under the BC human rights law. The tribunal operates like a court but is less formal. It has staff who help people resolve complaints without going to a hearing. If that’s not possible, they hold a hearing to decide if there was a human rights violation. Our page on if you’re discriminated against at work explains the steps in bringing a human rights complaint.

If you work for a federally-regulated employer, you may be able to file your complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Visit the commission's website to learn more.

There is a strict 12-month deadline for making a human rights complaint, so don’t wait too long.

Union grievance

Workers who belong to a union are covered by a collective agreement, which is a contract made between their union (on behalf of the unionized workers) and their employer. The collective agreement will typically spell out a process for a worker to make a complaint about the employer. This is called filing a grievance. Speak to your union representative if you are a member of a union. But act quickly, because there’s usually a short deadline to file. 

Workplace safety complaint

If your complaint has to do with workplace safety, a workplace injury, or the way your company treated you because of a workplace safety issue or an injury, you may have a claim to bring through WorkSafeBC. 

Visit the WorkSafeBC website for guidance on how to file a claim.

Option 4. Bringing a legal action

If your employer has breached your common law or contractual rights, you may decide to bring a legal action against your employer in court. 

If your claim is for less than $5,000, you can bring it to the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is an online tribunal that encourages a collaborative approach to resolving disputes.

If your claim is for more than $5,000 but less than $35,000, you can sue in Small Claims Court. It’s faster and less complicated than suing in the BC Supreme Court, which deals with claims over $35,000. 

If you decide to sue, note there are time limitations. You must file a lawsuit within two years of when the claim arises. For example, if you are suing because of a dismissal, you have to file your lawsuit within two years of being fired.

If you’re considering a lawsuit, it’s a good idea to get legal advice. A lawyer can explain your options, and help you decide on the best course of action.

Who’s Covered by BC’s Employment Standards Law

Learn if you’re protected under BC’s employment standards law. 


The main provincial law that protects workers in British Columbia is called the Employment Standards Act. It sets minimum standards for wages and working conditions. However, some workers are excluded from the protection of this law, or parts of it. Your rights in the workplace and your options to deal with problems depend on whether or not you’re covered. Learn if you’re protected under BC’s employment standards law.

Most workers are covered

“I work two jobs. One of my employers said I wasn’t entitled to extra pay for working on stat holidays, as I was an ‘independent contractor.’ I made a complaint to the Employment Standards Branch. They found the Employment Standards Act applies to me. They said if there’s any doubt whether an exception to the Act applies, it’s resolved in favour of the worker.”

– Melissa, Burnaby

The Employment Standards Act applies to employees. The definition of who is an employee is very broad. It’s intended to cover as many work relationships as possible. 

You’re seen to be an employee under this law if any of the following apply:

  • You perform work for another for wages. It doesn’t matter how many hours you work or if your job is permanent or temporary. 
  • An employer allows you to perform work normally done by an employee. This can be done directly or indirectly. For example, if an employee asks you to cover their shift, you’re an employee. Even if your employer doesn’t know about this arrangement. 
  • You’re being trained by an employer for their business. This includes a trial period for a prospective employee.
  • You’re on leave from an employer. This includes maternity or parental leave, or illness or injury leave.
  • You have a right of recall. This can come up if you’re temporarily laid off. It means you get to return to work.

If you meet the definition of employee, you’re covered by the Employment Standards Act unless an exception applies. There are a number of exceptions. We explain them below. 

If there’s any doubt whether an exception to the Employment Standards Act applies, it is resolved in favour of the worker. The Act applies.

Exception if you work as an independent contractor

The Employment Standards Act doesn’t cover independent contractors. An independent contractor is seen to be self-employed (and so not an “employee”). In other words, they run their own business.  

Figuring out whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor can be tricky. 

Factors in play

There are several factors to consider. An employee (as defined in the Act) is a person “entitled to wages for work performed for another.” An employer is a person who has “control or direction of an employee.”  

The topic of direction and control is important. Does the person paying you direct the work and say how it’s done? If the answer is “Yes,” that leans towards you being seen as an employee. 

Independent contractors are less controlled by the employer. A contractor would be more likely to set their own hours, determine how to perform the work, and provide their own equipment. 

A contractor also shares more of the risk. They’re more likely to be financially affected than an employee if the business does well or poorly.

Other factors include:

  • Clients. Is the person paying you your only gig or one of many? 
  • Ongoing relationship. Have you worked for them for a long time?
  • Connection to business. Is the work you do closely connected to the purpose of the business? 

More “Yes” answers mean you are more likely to be seen as an employee than as an independent contractor.

Some examples

The Employment Standards Branch is the government office that enforces the Act. They provide helpful examples of how they decide this question. Any doubt is resolved in favour of the worker. The Act is intended to protect as many workers as possible. 

Is someone an independent contractor or an employee?


Independent contractor


Degree of direction and control

Worker is more in control, setting their own hours, determining how to perform the work, and providing their own equipment.

More controlled by the employer, who sets hours, decides how work should be performed, and provides equipment.

Ongoing relationship

Is hired to do a specific time-limited job.

Is in an ongoing working relationship. 

Connection to business

The work performed is not integral to the business.

The work performed is closely connected to the purpose of the business.

Number of clients Has a number of clients. Relies on a single employer or business as their primary or sole source of income.


More chance of profit and risk of loss.

Less (or no) chance of profit or loss.

Calling someone an independent contractor doesn’t mean they are. Even if you sign something saying you’re an independent contractor, you may still be an employee under the law. Any agreement that tries to get around the requirements of the Employment Standards Act is not valid. 

Exception if you work in a federally-regulated workplace

If you work for an employer regulated by the federal government, you are not covered by the Employment Standards Act. Instead, a federal law called the Canada Labour Code applies. Around 6% of Canadian workers fall into this category.

Which employers are federally regulated? Examples include banks, airlines, and telecoms. The Canadian government website lists federally-regulated businesses and industries.

There are many similarities in how the Employment Standards Act and the Canada Labour Code protect workers. Both, for example, have rules for minimum wage, overtime pay, and holidays. But there are also important differences, especially for workers fired without cause.

If you work in a federally-regulated workplace, Employment and Social Development Canada can help you understand your rights in the workplace.

Exception if you work in certain licensed professions

The Employment Standards Act doesn’t apply to people working in certain licensed professions. Examples include doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers and realtors. The Employment Standards Branch lists the professions not covered by the Act

This doesn’t mean these professionals have no rights at the workplace. Other provincial laws, such as human rights laws and workers compensation laws, still apply — even though the Employment Standards Act doesn’t.

If you work in a licensed profession not covered by the Employment Standards Act, the body that regulates the profession can help you understand your rights in the workplace. For example, the Architectural Institute of British Columbia regulates architects in the province.

Exception if you’re a student, a babysitter, or enrolled in certain government incentive programs

The Employment Standards Act does not apply to students working in certain jobs:

  • secondary-school students working at their school or in work-study programs
  • primary- or secondary-school students working as newspaper carriers 15 hours a week or fewer

The Act doesn’t apply to babysitters. A babysitter is someone employed solely to attend to a child or other person in someone else’s private residence. It’s not someone working in a day care facility. 

The Act doesn’t apply to people who are in certain government incentive programs while receiving income assistance, disability benefits, or employment insurance. 

The Employment Standards Branch provides details of each of these categories.

If you’re a member of a union

Workers who belong to unions are covered by the collective agreements negotiated between their union and employer. Any collective agreement made or renewed after May 30, 2019 must meet or exceed the minimum standards of the Employment Standards Act in a number of areas. These include: 

  • hours of work and overtime 
  • statutory holidays 
  • annual vacation and vacation pay 
  • minimum notice provisions 

If provisions of the collective agreement fall below those minimum standards, then the Act applies instead.

If you belong to a union, speak with your union representative to learn about your rights in the workplace. 

If you work in an occupation that’s partially excluded from the Act

Some occupations fall partly outside the Employment Standards Act. This means some of the laws apply to these occupations but others do not. Here are some examples. The Employment Standards Branch provides a full list of occupations that are excluded from parts of the Act

High-tech professionals

A “high-tech professional” is excluded from the sections of the Act dealing with hours of work, overtime, and statutory holiday entitlements. The Employment Standards Branch explains who this applies to.

Silviculture workers

Silviculture workers (workers involved in reforestation) who are paid “primarily on a piece-rate basis” are excluded from some provisions of the Act dealing with split shifts, hours of work, and overtime. The Employment Standards Branch provides details

Farm workers

Farm workers are excluded from some sections of the Act, such as the statutory holiday entitlements. The Employment Standards Branch explains how the Act applies to farm workers.

Fin fish farm workers also have specific sections of the Act, involving work hours and overtime, that don’t apply. The branch provides details.

Commissioned salespeople

Workers paid on a commission or incentive basis are excluded from specific sections of the Act, including the overtime requirements. The branch provides details.

If you’re a manager

Managers are excluded from the parts of the Employment Standards Act that cover hours of work, overtime, and statutory holiday pay. They are otherwise covered (if none of the other exceptions apply).

A manager is defined as a person:

  • whose main duties are supervising or directing human or other resources, or
  • employed as an executive.

Key considerations in determining if someone is a manager are:

  • How much can they “materially and substantially” affect the employment conditions of those for whose work they are responsible?
  • What kind of responsibilities do they have with respect to company resources?

The title “manager” doesn’t legally make someone a manager. Nor does it matter if other workers refer to a person as a “manager.”

The Employment Standards Branch provides more detail on what goes into determining if someone is a manager.

If you’re not covered by employment standards legislation

Just because you’re not covered by the Employment Standards Act doesn’t mean you have no rights as a worker. Other laws apply to those who are excluded from the Act. For example, human rights laws protect all workers from discrimination. 

If you feel your rights have been violated at work, seeking legal advice can help. It’s a way to better understand which laws apply to you and what your options are to resolve your dispute. There are options for free or low-cost legal advice.


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