Ontario is stepping up its enforcement of the workplace changes that came in under Bill 148 — including the minimum wage hike — Ontario's labour minister said Monday, adding that it is "completely unacceptable" for businesses to respond to the changes by clawing back employee pay or benefits.

Minster Kevin Flynn issued a stern warning to employers in a morning press conference at Queen's Park.

Flynn was responding to stories from across the province over the last week since Ontario's minimum wage went up to $14 per hour. That change came into effect as part of a package of labour changes under Bill 148.

"We knew when we unveiled Bill 148 that there'd be a reaction from some businesses. The minimum wage, I don't believe ever in history, has been raised without the business community raising a fuss or concerns," Flynn told reporters. "For some businesses to take it out on their workers, however, is completely unacceptable. And it's simply wrong. It's the act of bullies that has no place in this province."

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Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn says it is 'completely unacceptable' for businesses to respond to the workplace changes by clawing back employee pay or benefits. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Flynn would not speak to specific incidents at any of the businesses. However, he said the ministry is sending inspectors to any workplace where contraventions of the Employment Standards Act or the Occupational Health and Safety Act are suspected.

He noted that the ministry is on track with its plan to hire 175 new enforcement officers, with the graduation of the first cohort next week.

Flynn also noted that there has been a 30 per cent increase in calls to the ministry's dedicated line for questions or complaints about potential employment standards violations. That line typically gets about 1,500 calls per month.

The ministry has also hired extra staff to take calls, anticipating an uptick following Jan. 1.

"We know that the vast majority of businesses in this province want to be in compliance. We know that the vast majority of businesses in this province are decent organizations that understand if they treat their employees well they become more profitable, they become more productive," Flynn said.

Company lashes out at 'rogue' franchisees

Last week, employees at a number of Tim Hortons franchises across Ontario reported losing perks such as paid breaks and some benefits, which the franchise owners have blamed on the minimum wage hike.

One story, first reported by CBC News, came from a Tim Hortons franchise in Cobourg, Ont., which eliminated paid breaks and asked employees to pay more of the costs of their benefits in a letter that went public last week.

Tim Hortons parent company, Restaurant Brands International, issued a harshly worded statement last Friday, lashing out at what it called a "rogue group" of franchise owners.

RBI said Friday: "There are several things that make the Tim Hortons brand truly unique, like our connection to our communities and the great relationship our restaurant owners and their team members have with our guests.

"It saddens all of us to see that jeopardized by the recent news stories and comments on social media, caused by the actions of a reckless few."

Initially, RBI said individual franchises are responsible for their own employment matters, including benefits and wages.

But in its Friday statement, the company went further by distancing itself from the "rogue" franchises, noting their "unauthorized statements" to media "do not reflect the values of our brand, the views of our company or the views of the overwhelming majority of our dedicated and hardworking restaurant owners."

One-third of Ontarians earn less than $15/hr

While some businesses have been taking out the increase in wages on workers, others have quietly put up signs informing customers that some prices will be going up. Signs at bakeries in Toronto and Port Hope made the social media rounds over the weekend.

"I think the vast majority of Ontarians — when they go in to buy that coffee, to buy that doughnut or whatever they're buying — if it's gone up a few cents but they know that the person who gave it to them, who served them, isn't living in poverty, I think Ontarians are built that they will agree with that," Flynn said.

No Ontarian should live in poverty if he or she works 35 to 40 hours per week, he said, noting that about one-third of Ontarians earn less than $15 per hour. Of those, over half are between the ages of 25 and 64, a time when many people are raising families, Flynn said, "and you just don't do that on $11.60 an hour."

Asked whether his message to businesses is simply to raise prices to cope with the wage hike, Flynn said no, as business owners deal with cost increases all the time, whether it's the cost of their land, fuel, raw materials, interest rates and so on.

"And the people that have gotten caught up in that discussion, which should really be a discussion around the board table, are people who should be impacted the least," Flynn said.

With files from Aaron Saltzman