Three Legal Aid Ontario lawyers have filed a pay equity gap complaint to Ontario's Pay Equity Commission on the basis that legal aid staff lawyers are predominantly female.
The complaint, filed on Monday, says legal aid must conduct a job evaluation review to ensure staff lawyers’ pay is line with male lawyers doing similar work.
According to the Pay Equity Act, a position is deemed “female job class” when 60 per cent or more of employees hired in that position are female. According to Steven Barrett of Goldblatt Partners LLP, a lawyer for the complainants, the act also requires employers to maintain pay equity.
“Given that the class is now confirmed to be predominately female, [LAO] has to do a gender-neutral job evaluation...to make sure that the predominantly female lawyers working as duty counsel at LAO are not being underpaid relative to their male comparators,” Barrett says.
Barrett says a similar complaint was previously rejected on the basis that the complainants did not have sufficient evidence to suggest that the staff lawyer position at LAO can be deemed “a female job class” for the purpose of the Pay Equity Act.
“If the staff were unionized, they’d be entitled to disclose of that information but because LAO has refused to recognize the Society [of Energy Professionals] as their bargaining agent, they weren’t able to get the information they needed,” Barrett tells Legal Feeds.
But the information they needed has since come from an interesting place, the complainants say. When, in 2015, LAO lawyers launched a Charter challenge in regards to their bargaining rights, former legal aid CEO Bob Ward submitted a sworn affidavit in which he “bragged” that by the end of 2015, two-thirds of LAO lawyers were women, says Barrett.
“They’ve now conceded whatever the pay equity process had earlier determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence [to support],” he adds.
In an e-mail to Legal Feeds, LAO spokeswoman Feroneh Neil said the figure cited in Ward’s affidavit is accurate. But she added that depending on their call, staff lawyers are paid between $76,000 – $115,000 “irrespective of [their] gender.”
“In 2015, the Pay Equity Commission confirmed that the staff lawyer job class is a gender neutral job class, and found that there was no contravention of the Pay Equity Act,” Neil also said.
LAO staff lawyer Linh Le, who is one of the three complainants, says pay equity legislations are “meaningless” if they’re not enforceable.
“It’s known that women often face pay discrimination and it’s often even worse for women of colour,” Le says, adding her colleagues are mostly women and people of colour. “We feel that there’s possibly some discrimination happening there and we just want to make sure that they’re upholding their duties,” she adds.
The pay equity complaint comes as LAO lawyers continue to mount a campaign to unionize after LAO rejected their bid to be represented by the Society of Energy Professionals in 2013. Their Charter application against LAO and the Ontario government is scheduled for hearing on Dec. 5.
Under labour laws, lawyers must get voluntary recognition from their employers in order to join a union because the Labour Relations Act excludes lawyers. But others who fall into that exception, such as police officers and government lawyers, have received voluntary recognition from their employers to join unions.
LAO, for its part, has said it respects the employee right to associate and is willing to consider associations other than the union the employees want to join. Ward previously expressed concerns about the fact that the employees’ choice of union, the Society of Energy Professionals, is a trade union.
The lawyers say they’ve chosen that union because it is an “experienced and well-resourced association/union to mount an effective campaign.”
The Society of Energy Professionals’ executive vice-president Michelle Johnston, says, “It’s the lawyers who came to us and that’s their right.”
“It’s been three years of turmoil where the government doesn’t want to engage with us in a conversation but they’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Johnston says.
The union, Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley, and organizers with the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign have announced they’ll join picketing LAO lawyers tonight outside of a Liberal fundraiser in Toronto.
With files from Glenn Kauth