The hypocrisy of Tim Hortons, a business built on coffee breaks

If all Canadians lost their paid breaks, like some workers at a Tim Hortons in Ontario, what would be left of the once iconic company?

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Conservative leader and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper works behind the counter during a campaign stop at a Tim Hortons in Dieppe, New Brunswick April 1, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election May 2. Chris Wattie/Reuters

Security guard Luke Tremblay is on his lunch break at a Tim Hortons in downtown Ottawa, ordering a chicken wrap and small carton of chocolate milk. He gets two other 15-minute breaks during each of his shifts, when he often comes back to this same house of habitual hot beverages, fashioned with its iconic brownness.

“If you’re jammed on an issue, by coming here, the coffee or fresh air, it gives you a fresh perspective,” says another customer, a federal civil servant who drinks black coffee on his breaks. “I feel refreshed,” says his colleague. “When I hit work again, it’s almost like a new day.”

Tim Hortons depends on Canadians taking breaks, as workers pause from filing documents, doing construction or other daily toils to get caffeinated. So when a franchise in Cobourg, Ont., eliminated 15-minute paid breaks for its employees, the move, if not uncalled for, was certainly hypocritical.

Owned by the children of the Tims co-founders, the franchise argues it must cut costs to compensate for Ontario’s increase in minimum wage, which jumped from $11.60 to $14.00 this year. But the owners are slashing the very type of respites that drive their business, and some Canadians are deciding they won’t roll up the rim to win as long as the workers are rolling up their sleeves to lose.

“The whole business model is based on having a moment in your day when you can sit for a second, have a coffee,” says NDP MP Nathan Cullen, his party’s ethics critic. “If all the companies that employ the customers of Tim Hortons did the same thing that Tim Hortons is doing, Tim Hortons would probably be out of business.” The labour change, he says, “seems like a cruel decision, quite vindictive on their part.” He adds, “it doesn’t seem very wholesome.”

READ MORE: In a fight over minimum wage at Tim Hortons, the worker loses

Miles Gilbert Horton, also known as Tim, founded what would become a multi-billion dollar company in 1964 with his business partner Ronald Joyce, who is now worth $1.4 billion according to Forbes. Two of their children got married, Jeri-Lynn Horton-Joyce and Ron Joyce Jr., who own the controversial franchise in Cobourg. Despite the family wealth, they wrote a letter that was leaked to social media telling employees they will lose their paid breaks and will need to start paying for 50 to 75 per cent of their health and dental benefits.

“We apologize for these changes,” reads the letter from the owners, as posted on Facebook. They may reverse the changes depending on “costs of the future,” but for now they blame “lack of assistance from our Head Office and the government.”

The franchise owners could not be reached for comment, and the Tim Hortons corporate office told the CBC it is not responsible for employee matters of privately-owned franchises. Owners could argue that Ontarian franchises need to make cuts in order to keep prices low. Even without paying for breaks, they will still pay minimum wage employees about $12 more per eight-hour shift than in 2017.

Tim Hortons sells itself as a basic coffee shop committed to middle and lower economic class communities through charitable summer camps and child hockey leagues, but that image may be fading. “Tim Hortons uses Canadian values as a marketing tool,” tweeted the federal NDP on Thursday. A petition to boycott Tim Hortons is circulating on social media, with supporters including Alexander Being in Windsor, Ont. “We’ve been told we live in a meritocracy,” he says. “It’s turning out more and more, a large chunk of us work [and] still stay poor.” (A Maclean’s poll late last year found that McDonald’s is now Canadians’ favourite coffee chain, and Tim Hortons was fourth.)

Nathan Cullen says executives should take wage cuts, not the front line: “Tim Hortons CEOs will earn more by 11 o’clock in the morning on Jan. 2 than most of their employees will earn all year.”

By 11 o’clock in the morning, many Canadians take a break to the benefit of Tim Hortons. Even the Timbits hockey league depends on breaks for support; at professional hockey games, the Timbits scrimmage during intermissions.