01/04/2018 14:40 EST | Updated 01/04/2018 17:18 EST

Kathleen Wynne Calls Out Children Of Tim Hortons Founders For Slashing Employee Benefits

The tiff follows the rise in Ontario's minimum wage.

Mark Blinch/Reuters
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2016.

TORONTO — The premier of Ontario lashed out at the children of Tim Hortons' billionaire co-founders on Thursday for reducing the benefits of their employees in response to the latest minimum wage increase, calling it a "clear act of bullying."

Kathleen Wynne said if Ron Joyce Jr., whose father co-founded the coffee shop chain, was opposed to the Liberal government's decision to raise the minimum wage, he should have picked a fight with her, not the workers.

"I'd be happy if this man were making a statement about the government or about the policy," she said. "What I think is really unfair, and where I think the bullying comes in, is that he's taking this out on his employees. He's behaving in a way that I think is so unfair to his employees, people who are trying to make ends meet."

Wynne says 'fairness' is her goal:

In a letter sent late last month, Joyce Jr. and his wife, Jeri Horton-Joyce — daughter of the company's other co-founder, Tim Hortons, told employees at two Tim Hortons restaurants they own in Cobourg, Ont., that as of Jan. 1, they would no longer be entitled to paid breaks, and would have to pay at least half of the cost of their dental and health benefits.

The couple said the measures were aimed at helping their company — Ron Joyce Jr. Enterprises Ltd. — offset the $2.40 hourly rate jump.

Wynne, who faces a tough bid for re-election this spring, has staked her political future on policies like the minimum wage plan.

"When I read the reports about Ron Joyce, Jr., who is a man whose family founded Tim Hortons, the chain was sold for billions of dollars, and when I read how he was treating his employees, it just felt to me like this was a pretty clear act of bullying," she said.

This is really not a decent thing to be doing in a place as wealthy as Ontario.Kathleen Wynne

Wynne has talked for months about themes of fairness and opportunity in Ontario's growing economy with the caveat that some workers are being left behind. The premier has said her minimum wage plan, which saw the rate jump from $11.60 an hour to $14 an hour this week, is about helping low income earners. It will increase another dollar to $15 on Jan. 1, 2019.

The plan has angered many in the business community, who say they don't object to the increase itself but the speed with which it is being implemented.

While the changes announced by Joyce Jr. are not a violation of Ontario's Employment Standards Act, Wynne said she wants him to reverse the decision.

"I hope that he understands this is really not a decent thing to be doing in a place as wealthy as Ontario," she said. "I hope he recognizes that his employees need to be treated decently."

In their letter to employees, Joyce Jr. and his wife complained about "lack of assistance and financial help" from Tim Hortons' head office and the government.

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"We apologize for these changes," the letter, widely circulated on social media, read. "Once the costs of the future are better known we may bring back some or all of the benefits we have had to remove."

A spokeswoman for the Great White North Franchisee Association, a group created last year to give voice to the concerns of some Tim Hortons franchisees, declined to comment on the letter and said the Joyce family would not be making a comment to media.

But the association's board of directors released a statement Thursday saying Ontario's Liberal government has put its members in a "difficult situation" by implementing the minimum wage increase.

Along with the wage bump, the legislation which introduced it also includes increased costs to pension, employment insurance, and vacation pay contributions which must be paid by employers, the statement said.

"It is the goal of GWNFA and its members to mitigate job losses if at all possible, and as a result, franchisees have been forced to take steps to protect their businesses in this new fiscal reality brought on by these substantial labour cost increases."