Confessions of a Call (Center) Girl

female call assistant A complaint has been filed with the Labour Standards Division of Nova Scotia against the Sydney Call Centre for breaching provincial labor laws.

I should know. I filed it.

I sent my four-page complaint with more than 40 supporting documents on October 2, alleging the center, which employs over 600 people, deliberately and repeatedly changed staff schedules to avoid paying time-and-a-half (over $20 per hour) on statutory holidays or providing time off in lieu.

The center is run by Todd Riley, who became something of a local hero in December 2018, when the former ServiCom Call Centre suddenly shut down, tossing about 500 people out of work. Like a Christmas miracle, though, the center reopened weeks later, when American investor Anthony Marlowe of Iowa bought it for $1.5 million in an auction that was part of ServiCom’s bankruptcy proceedings in the United States.

Soon after staff returned to work (hugging and in tears, according to Riley at the time), the provincial government announced a $2.5 million payroll rebate to MCI through Nova Scotia Business Inc. As of March 2020, $637,500 of the rebate had been disbursed.

Riley, who recently finished third in a tight race to succeed the late Ray Paruch as District 6 municipal councilor, took credit for saving the center when he launched his campaign, writing on Facebook on September 10:

My world and my dreams were shaken when business dealings outside of Cape Breton threatened closure of my workplace. I had a choice to make, be a company yes man and shrug my shoulders or actively work to find a solution that would preserve my job and the stability and well being of coworkers who I came to love like family. They, like me, made a commitment and a choice to live and raise families here in a place we all call home.

We succeeded and I am proud of my part in leading that effort.

But if managers at the call center are like family, they must be the cousins from Mars, where Nova Scotia labor laws don’t apply.

Sydney Call Centre

Here in Nova Scotia, the Labour Standards Code gives “employees who qualify” six holidays with pay: New Year’s Day, Nova Scotia Heritage Day, Good Friday, Canada Day, Labour Day and Christmas Day. As Judy Haiven has explained in the Nova Scotia Advocate, if you are a union member, working under a collective agreement, you get paid for the holiday. If, on the other hand, you work in “nearly 70% of businesses and offices in Nova Scotia which are not unionized,” you must meet two criteria, you must:

  • be entitled to receive pay for at least 15 of the 30 calendar days before the holiday, and [emphasis in the original text]
  • have worked on their last scheduled shift or day before the holiday and on the first scheduled shift or day after the holiday

The code spells out how holiday pay is to be calculated — regular pay plus time-and-a-half for hours worked on the stat — and what happens if the holiday falls on an employee’s regular day off. It then makes special mentions of “continuous operations” like call centers, where the employer can pay for holidays worked in one of two ways: by paying time-and-a-half or by giving the employee a different day off with pay.

But at the Sydney Call Centre, days before a stat holiday, schedules are changed to make staff work their regular, 40+ hour week with no extra pay or time off in lieu. Instead, staff must trade a regular day off for the stat and call it even.


phone logoWeekly, full-time schedules are set by supervisors of every team in the building every few months in a shift-bid process. The first time I participated in this process was after our team, the first group in Sydney trained to take inbound calls for Bob’s Discount Furniture (BDF), a $1 billion US-based furniture chain, had been on the floor taking calls for about two months. By then, another team had finished their three weeks’ training and were also on the floor taking calls. One by one, we were brought into a board room and offered five days on and two days off. The best shifts went to those most favored by local or American bosses, with extra points awarded for just showing up for work daily, showing up for work daily on time, not goofing around, taking tons of calls, not making big mistakes, not returning late from breaks or taking too many bathroom breaks.

In my time at the Sydney Call Centre – from 11 November 2019 to 26 September 2020 – my regular work week ran to 42.5 hours, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. I was among the lucky few to always get two days in a row off, others rarely did.

Outside of the shift-bid process, the only other time schedules change is during stat holiday weeks.

Here’s how it works.

In the days leading up to every stat holiday, an email arrives from a Canadian or American supervisor. Agents in Sydney are managed by Canadian supervisors who answer to their bosses in the States. It was common to get communications from both sides of the border whether it was about changes in policy, offers to work over time, or communications over stat holidays.

Here’s the one sent by a Canadian supervisor on August 27 to the Sydney team – about 60 agents at the time – on the BDF account:

Good Morning Team,

As you all may know, Labor Day is Monday September 7th, 2020.

BDF has provided us with a Holiday Schedule, only 25 agents will be needed and will be scheduled on a volunteer first come, first served basis. Please respond to this email if you are interested in working

11:00a-7:30p on Monday September 7th 2020.EASTERN STANDARD TIME

If you normally work Monday’s [sic] and do not opt in for the holiday schedule or are not selected, you will be scheduled off on Monday 9/7/2020 and scheduled for a regular shift on your normal day off to adhere to the 40 hour week.

Identical messages were sent to our team for Canada Day, Good Friday and Memorial Day (yes, the American stat holiday).

There are multiple teams onsite in Sydney making or taking calls for MCI on contracts with companies like BDF, OnStar, AT&T and Sirius Radio. I’ve been told by workers from two of those other teams that they, too, get similar notices prior to stat holidays.

Frankly, the first time it happened to me, I didn’t realize I was being shortchanged. I was acting supervisor, working extra shifts through the Christmas holidays to cover for supervisors. By the time February’s Heritage Day rolled around and I was back on the floor doing calls, confusion ruled and we accepted that what our supervisors were telling us was true: that we just didn’t get the day as a stat.

The first time I took real notice was on Good Friday, when I was relaxing at home, enjoying what I thought was a refreshing extra day off. (Our team, like other call center staff, started working from home when the COVID crisis hit.)

My supervisor called that Good Friday, demanding I start taking calls at 12 noon, and letting me know I would not be getting the statutory holiday rate (time-and-a-half) for the five hours left in the day. And I didn’t:

Good Friday pay stub

Here’s my Good Friday pay stub. I worked five hours on that stat holiday and the center recorded it as “stat” holiday pay.


female call assistant By Canada Day, though, I was onto them, as you can see from this June 22 live chat between our main local supervisor and the BFD team (I’ve identified staffers only by their initials):

Supervisor (3:07PM) Hey everyone I am sending you all an email reminding you about Canada day. We are in full operation that day. We will have limited operations on July 4th.

AM (3:09 PM): Any holiday pay for either [?]

Supervisor: I think maybe Canada [D]ay but [I] am not 100% sure right this second.

AP (long-time call center employee): We usually get paid for Canada Day.

After it became apparent most didn’t understand her emailed communication about being forced to work a 40+ hour stat holiday week, other staffers chimed in about compensation:

AP (4:21PM): Wanting to confirm: we[‘]ll get time and a half Canada [D]ay so long as we work our 15 days and the day after?

Supervisor: Canada Day is a stat holiday. You must work your scheduled day before and after. You also must have worked 15 out of the last 30 days. [T]hat is to qualify for the holiday pay. So guys…if you need it off book it today. Today is the last day.

MM (4:23PM): But what if you’re off that day[?]

Supervisor: It is a paid day off but you must qualify.

DD (4:27PM): But if we work it then we get extra $$? Or is it that if we work Canada Day we gotta pick another day the following week to take off because [I] think with OnStar we could take the day off but would need to make up later in the month.

Supervisor (4:36PM): No, if you work it you get paid. For July 4th if you don’t work that day, which [I] am sure they will ask for volunteers, then you would work a different day for that one. Anyone wanting to book the 1st off (Canada Day) send it to me now or forever hold your peace.

At 5:21PM, I piped up: And what about those of us off duty on Canada [D]ay ?? [W]here’s our day off with pay in lieu?

Supervisor: Tera, any concerns please talk to me privately.

Me: My concern is that I’m off duty that day and have to work 5 days that week while others off get an extra paid day off. It’s not fair.

After refusing to directly answer my question in front of the team that day, she shot me a private message:

Supervisor (5:38PM): If that is your day off you are paid for the day off. If you work it is paid. If you are scheduled off you are paid. If that is not your scheduled day off then you need to book it off…as a vaca day.

At this point, I gave up, frustrated and angry that anyone in Canada could believe you need to book off a stat holiday, but I found out later that a colleague in that same group chat picked up where I left off and complained to Human Resources or “People Support” as it’s known at MCI.

Eight days later, the same supervisor sent a private email to nine of us whose normal day off landed on Canada Day:

For you guys on this email only. Since Canada Day fell on your scheduled day off you will receive pay for your day off tomorrow and we will also give you another day off with no pay. You can book that with me by email please within the next couple of weeks this should be taken.

Canada Day pay stub

Here’s what a stat pay looks like when you have the day off with pay. It only happened once, on Canada Day,

But the rest of our team did not receive time-and-a-half for working the stat holiday, just their usual $13.50 hourly rate, identified as “Stat 1.0” pay on their paystubs, and lost one of their regular days off that week, while nine of us enjoyed a 32-hour work week.


phone logoMy victory was short-lived. A couple of days before Labour Day, of all days, a holiday in honor of those who have worked and sacrificed and even died to get fair compensation and other benefits enshrined in law, my schedule was changed. I alerted supervisors they’d made a mistake, booking me in on my day off to work a 40-hour week. Because my two scheduled days off followed the stat holiday, my first day back would have been that Thursday, but they changed it to Wednesday, stealing my day off.

When I fought to have two normal days off with Labour Day that week, a new assistant supervisor (whom I had helped train in December) wrote me:

You will not be paid for the stat holiday if you show up on Thursday I’m telling you that because you are scheduled on Wednesday. It doesn’t matter what you were scheduled for a day off LAST week. This is this week.

When I attempted to explain to her that regular days off do matter in every week, it was like blowing farts in the wind — all stink and hot air.

“I’m done talking [about] this,” she wrote.

And I wasn’t paid for the stat holiday.

Labour Day pay stub.

Here’s what my Labour Day pay stub looked like when I took it off and refused to work the normal 40-hour week. They slashed my pay more than 8 hours.

But I didn’t let it lie. After Labour Day, I went to the call center’s director of “People Support,” who ultimately backed the supervisor:

Hi Tera; Our work week runs from Sunday to Saturday. My understanding is that your normal schedule for the week was to work on the Monday September 7th holiday. You were given the option to not work on Labour Day (which you chose) with the understanding that you would be rescheduled for another day through the week. This was communicated via email on August 27th, 2020. The holiday did not fall on your regular scheduled day off. If you have any additional information, please let me know.

I responded on Sept. 10:

Can you point out where under the Labour Code…it gives permission to an employer to remove one of two reg days off to pay for the stat holiday?? The schedule released two days before the holiday has only one reg day. What of the other five days this week are my reg day off?

The same “People Support” official wrote:

Your regular day off this week is Tuesday and you were off for the holiday on Monday. The requirements for having Monday off were outlined in the email sent to you on August 27th. There is no weekly hours stipulation in the labour code regarding the amount of hours worked in a holiday week. Please feel free to contact labour standards if you have specific questions regarding the labour code. They will notify us if they determine we have made an error.

I took the advice and, as noted at the outset, on October 2, I filed a complaint against the call center.

As a Cape Bretoner and the granddaughter of a Devco rail worker who fought for safe and fair compensation for workers in and around the pits, I felt it was time to take a stand.

A week later, I was advised by a team leader that I owed the center time for working only 32 hours in the Labour Day stat week.

Tera, We really need everyone that is owing hours to make up their time as soon as possible. I’m showing you owe 8hrs.

I responded:

Hey there; I don’t owe any time… This is a matter I took before HR and they advised me to take it to the [L]abour [S]tandards board.


female call assistant This isn’t just a Canadian problem.

An MCI agent in the United States, who quit in February over similar pay issues, as well as other unpleasant aspects of the job, told me (via Facebook) that they always got the same email denying holiday pay or time off in lieu before a stat holiday:

And I worked all the time hahaha and didn’t make holiday pay. Now I make great money and [am] much happier.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, MCI has extremely high turnover rates on both sides of the border. (“That’s how it was when I was there,” the US agent told me.) And quitting has been a big issue at the call center in Sydney, too.

My group, the first BDF team in Sydney, started training on Remembrance Day and were taking inbound calls by early December. Of the 23 of us who trained together, only two remain at the center today. The rest of us quit over labor code violations, witnessed or suffered; poor training and complicated computer programming; or all the nit-picking and micro-managing. A couple were fired for doing stuff they shouldn’t have been doing like going for a “bathroom” break that was actually a smoke break (weed or cigarettes) and getting caught by a manger coming in the door in their winter jackets.

MCI locations map

Source: MCI

I saw and consoled both men and women who broke down in tears after being screamed at by irate customers and told by supervisors locally they had to suffer it. I consoled my own supervisor, when stress drove her to tears.

Others left due to life-threatening health issues. This includes the man who sat next to me, who took a heart attack and was carted out by ambulance to Halifax for open-heart surgery. The Sydney Call Centre, as the Spectator reported back in October 2019, has a high frequency of visiting ambulances.

The stress comes from multiple sources — like, the unsanitary conditions in the multi-stall men’s and women’s washrooms. Using the women’s — about the size you’d find in a typical Walmart — required the kind of skills you’d employ using a Porta Potty in the dark during a rock concert. But if you got caught trying to use one of the two, smaller, cleaner bathrooms reserved for management, leads and supervisors, you’d be threatened with “disciplinary action.”

Same goes for the only lunch room, with its packed refrigerators, microwaves and sink (one of two) that didn’t work for the most time I was there. I remember being warned by other workers not to touch the tables — or to let them touch my food!

Coming back “late” from lunch because the stupid red clock in the lunchroom was stuck on 12:05 would get you a letter of reprimand; using a cell phone or talking to another agent or, heaven forbid, laughing, could get you yelled at.

If you failed to pick up an incoming call in the three seconds allotted, you were reprimanded for being “not ready.” (See the warning below, which I was given for or for putting nine people on hold for about 10 minutes combined one day. The computer wasn’t clearing the information from previous calls before the next incoming call, so I placed them on hold until I could take their information and pull up their accounts.) This in a system where, at any given moment, over 300 American customers were waiting for service, some spending hours on hold. Some days we were told “Guys, not even a pee break,” because of the incoming volume of calls.


VERBAL - call handling - Tera Camus


Among the more demoralizing reprimands were the ones you got from supervisors instructing you to “not help” new agents even when those agents begged for help during the daily, internal chats between Canadian and American BDF employees. Seconds after I shot a girl a private chat message telling her what form she had to file, a supervisor monitoring my private chats told me not to help her, that “agents must learn on their own.” That girl quit about a month later.

In the time since our group hit the floor, another five, similarly sized groups were trained and put on the phones (or, post-COVID, provided equipment to work from their homes). Most barely survived a week on the Bob’s Discount Furniture contract after they started taking calls from angry customers or impatient delivery drivers, carpenters and upholstery technicians. Instead of a team of hundreds, which there should be by now given the number of people trained, there are fewer than 60 people on the contract..


phone logoDon’t get me wrong. I wasn’t the perfect employee either. We were trained to offer expressions of sympathy, but honestly, it’s hard to get worked up about a sofa with a broken leg. I lacked a key skill necessary to do the job — the ability to lie convincingly. And boy, did I fail miserably when scored by supervisors for my “empathy” i.e. how many times I said the word “sorry” in a call.

I had way more fun trying to come up with creative non-apologies, like this one time I told an extremely escalated caller volleying insults at me: “I’m sorry we didn’t dumb it down enough for you.” Thankfully, he was too dumb to register the insult.

I never, ever swore directly at a belligerent caller, not because I didn’t want to, but because it is (and should be) a justifiable reason for termination. But some agents did get caught swearing during very escalated exchanges.

One fiery redhead I helped train got so frazzled by a caller she failed to “mute” her headset and was overheard whispering a string of profanity, which I will loosely transcribe as ‘you f-bomb-son-of-a rooster-lollypop.’ The caller complained to the furniture company who then complained to supervisors in Canada who pulled the tape of the call.

The next day, I watched supervisors escort her into a boardroom to play back the call and then directly out of the main door about a half hour later, not even allowing her to pick up her personal belongings at her desk. I watched as she walked out that door grinning, head held high. A bunch of us later agreed that if you had to go out, go out in a blaze of glory.

Those irate customers, besides testing your sanity, could occasionally provide some comic relief.

Like the guy who called to complain about Bob’s hiring “stupid Canadians” for their customer service and daring to “outsource jobs to Canada.” I was limiting my responses so as not to betray my location when the irate man yelled, “Where are you from by the way?”

After a long pause, I said, smacking my lips, “Canada.” Talk about shutting someone up quick.

I’ll also never forget the day Jesus called.

It was during our “nesting period,” in our final week of training, after I had been struggling all morning to get a half dozen computer programs to work, swearing at my computer, “Jesus H Christ,” repeatedly.

Later that day, when Jesus, a real Bob’s truck driver, called in to report a problem, he didn’t use the Spanish pronunciation and his named threw me off my game.

“Jesus?” I said. “I’ve been saying your name all day! Were you talking to God or listening?”

The driver started laughing, as did two colleagues who were sharing my headset for training purposes. We started giggling and couldn’t stop, like when you get a completely inappropriate urge to laugh at a funeral. We had tears in our eyes.

Good people.

They quit long ago, too.


female call assistant On October 5, I received a message from the Labour Standards Division:

This is to acknowledge the receipt of both your emails with your complaint form and supporting documents into our office. Please note that there may be some delay before the file is assigned to an Investigative Officer. Once assigned, the officer will be in touch with you to discuss next step.

So far, no investigator has reached out.

In the meantime, Todd Riley, having been informed that I had filed a complaint against the center and quit, sent me an email:


I have passed this on to Rick and Shauna along with Tanya. I took on a new job with the call centre so addressed it to the proper people. I am not aware on [sic] this situation but can someone on this email give me some additional information on this situation? Thanks.

Since then, “People Support” has called to arrange return of their computers to the Inglis Street center, but I’ve heard nothing else.

And despite my drawing attention to the matter, I hear the policy on holidays has not changed for the people still working at the call center, which is why most of the people working at the call center – people taking on difficult jobs in a tough economy — don’t last. The call center “family” is just too dysfunctional.

I offered Todd Riley the last word, a chance to speak to the complaint, but as of press time, I had received no response.


Born and raised in Whitney Pier, Tera Camus has been a journalist for three decades,  investigating, writing, editing and shooting photos for a variety of national and international outlets including CBC Radio, the Chronicle Herald, Toronto Star, Orlando Times and Canadian Geographic. She has been recognized for her reporting on Cape Breton murderers and misuses of municipal funds and for her investigative work mapping toxic hot spots in and around the former Sydney tar ponds/coke ovens.