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‘Really toxic’: Abuse allegations continue to dog Winnipeg restaurant chain Stella’s Cafe

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Three former Stella’s Cafe employees behind an online campaign to bring attention to what they call workplace harassment, unfair treatment of staff, racism, and sexual assault at the Winnipeg restaurant chain have outlined what they’d like to see done about their concerns.

Christina Hajjar, 27, Kelsey Wade, 22, and Amanda Murdock, 36, are the public faces of a group that started the Instagram account “Not My Stella’s” which began posting stories this week from people who say they are past and current employees of the chain with more than 500 employees.

Many of those stories — the group said they’ve received as many 180 as of Saturday afternoon — detail allegations of abuse of staff, but also a culture of fear about reporting transgressions to management and cases where people have been fired for doing so.

In a statement sent to media on Friday, Stella’s said it was committed to providing a safe space for everyone, both employees and customers. 

“We do not believe that it would be constructive to try to publicly address matters raised in social media,” the company said in its statement. “Stella’s has a harassment policy and procedures in place for dealing with these complaints. We take them very seriously.”

The company also said it has hired People First, a human resources company, to review their policies and procedures on workplace safety.

Read Friday’s statement from Stella’s:

At a news conference Saturday, the three former employees said the statement didn’t go far enough and called for changes to operations at the restaurant with seven Winnipeg locations.  

“There have been complaints made with the labour board, there have been human rights complaints made and nothing has ever really come of it,” said Wade, who worked as a server and supervisor at Stella’s for nearly three years.

“And I think it was just time for people to know what the environment in Stella’s is like for employees.”

Five demands

The creators of the Instagram account — which had nearly 10,000 followers as of Saturday evening — read out five demands they want fulfilled, which include a public apology, the removal of two managers, monetary restitution for employees, and the creation of a human resources department within the company.

The stories posted on the Instagram account include a wide array of allegations, such as bullying, sexual assault, harassment and racism.

The three also accuse Stella’s of failing to protect female, transgender and non-binary employees.

In an online post, Wade said the restaurant’s CEO would grab her cheeks and call her cute when he visited the restaurant where she worked. She said the business released a questionnaire asking other staff to rate the credibility of an employee who had spoken up with allegations of sexual assault and harassment.   

She said the accused was ultimately transferred to another location after the allegations. 

Murdock said she was demoted from general manager to an assistant manager position after returning from maternity leave. Hajjar said she was fired from Stella’s a year ago for bringing up her concerns.

“What we’ve experienced is terrifying,” said Murdock, who added it’s difficult to speak about even now, three years after leaving the company. “It brings up a lot of trauma.” 

All three former employees stressed they are not asking Winnipeggers to boycott Stella’s restaurants.

Wade said customers who want to support Stella’s employees should call the restaurant’s head office to voice concerns and remember to tip frontline staff well and in cash.

Stella’s has a number of restaurant locations as well as a bakery and catering operation in Winnipeg. (Ron Boileau/Radio-Canada)

The former employees said they are willing to work with Stella’s owners and management to implement the changes they’re calling for.

“Any conversation that’s forward moving is a conversation that we’re willing to have,” said Murdock. 

“But it’s important that they realize that these statements that we made are based on what we’ve experienced and they’re valid and they’re important and they should be respected.”

A second statement from Stella’s

Stella’s released a second statement shortly after Saturday’s news conference encouraging those with complaints to bring them forward through independent third parties, like the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and Manitoba Employment Standards.

(NotMyStellas/Instagram)

“Stella’s is deeply concerned about a range of serious allegations and complaints being brought forward in recent days,” reads the statement

“We are fully committed to taking every responsible action to ensure a safe and respectful workplace for all employees, and a zero tolerance approach to breaches of respectful workplace policy will be enforced.”

The statement also said Stella’s will work with authorities investigating any complaint.

The restaurant didn’t respond to CBC News when asked whether the two managers specifically named by the three former employees are still with the company.

‘Toxic atmosphere’

Another former employee of the restaurant chain told CBC News on Saturday that he’s not surprised by the steady stream of allegations of mistreatment of staff by management.

Luke Savard was 18 when he started working at Stella’s roughly three years ago.

He described it as a toxic atmosphere with an overtly sexualized culture that left many employees feeling anxious and afraid.

(NotMyStellas/Instagram)

He said he remembers feeling like he wasn’t allowed to take a break while on shift.

“They said we didn’t need breaks so I’d be working an eight, nine-hour shift straight without anything so much as a five-minute break,” he said, adding he was told he wasn’t allowed to drink water in front of customers.

Savard said he was also ordered to pay out of his own pocket when a till that had been used by many staff throughout the day didn’t balance at the end of the night.

After a few months, Savard had enough and quit.

“The atmosphere there was just really, really toxic to be in,” he said. “It wasn’t my coworkers that were the problem, it was the management.”

No outstanding complaints

On Friday, the company said it was not aware of any outstanding complaints against the restaurant with the Manitoba Labour Board or the Human Rights Commission.

The Manitoba Labour Board said there was only one previous complaint against the company, which was made in September, but it had been withdrawn.

The labour board confirmed there were no other past or outstanding complaints.

The Manitoba Human Rights Commission said it is not able to confirm or deny if a complaint has been filed unless the commission investigates a matter and determines it should be referred to a public hearing.​

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Real Estate

5 ways to reduce your mortgage amortization

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Since the pandemic hit, a lot of Canadians have been affected financially and if you’re on a mortgage, reducing your amortization period can be of great help.

A mortgage amortization period is the amount of time it would take a homeowner to completely pay off their mortgage. The amortization is typically an estimate based on what the interest rate for your current term is. Calculating your amortization is done easily using a loan amortization calculator which shows you the different payment schedules within your amortization period.

 In Canada, if you made a down payment that is less than the recommended 20 per cent of the total cost of your home, then the longest amortization period you’re allowed to have is 25 years. The mortgage amortization period not only affects the length of time it would take to completely repay the loan, but also the amount of interest paid over the lifecycle of the mortgage.

Typically, longer amortization periods involve making smaller monthly payments and having a much higher total interest cost over the duration of the mortgage. While on the other hand, shorter amortization periods entails making larger monthly payments and having lower total interest costs.

It’s the dream of every homeowner to become mortgage-free. A general rule of thumb would be to try and keep your monthly mortgage costs as low as possible—preferably below 30 per cent of your monthly income. Over time, you may become more financially stable by either getting a tax return, a bonus or an additional source of income and want to channel that towards your principal.

There are several ways to keep your monthly mortgage payments low and reduce your amortization. Here are a few ways to achieve that goal:

1. Make a larger down payment

Once you’ve decided to buy a home, always consider putting asides some significant amount of money that would act as a down payment to reduce your monthly mortgage. While the recommended amount to put aside as a down payment is 20 per cent,  if you aren’t in a hurry to purchase the property or are more financial buoyant, you can even pay more.

Essentially, the larger your down payment, the lower your mortgage would be as it means you’re borrowing less money from your lender. However, if you pay at least 20 per cent upfront, there would be no need for you to cover the additional cost of private mortgage insurance which would save you some money.

2. Make bi-weekly payments

Most homeowners make monthly payments which amount to 12 payments every year. But if your bank or lender offers the option of accelerated bi-weekly payment, you will be making an equivalent of one more payment annually. Doing this will further reduce your amortization period by allowing you to pay off your mortgage much faster.

3. Have a fixed renewal payment

It is normal for lenders to offer discounts on interest rate during your amortization period. However, as you continuously renew your mortgage at a lower rate, always keep a fixed repayment sum.

Rather than just making lower payments, you can keep your payments static, since the more money applied to your principal, the faster you can clear your mortgage.

4. Increase your payment amount

Many mortgages give homeowners the option to increase their payment amount at least once a year. Now, this is very ideal for those who have the financial capacity to do so because the extra money would be added to your principal.

Irrespective of how small the increase might be, in the long run, it would make a huge difference. For example, if your monthly mortgage payment is about $2,752 per month. It would be in your best interest to round it up to $2,800 every month. That way, you are much closer to reducing your mortgage amortization period.

5. Leverage on prepayment privileges

The ability for homeowners to make any form of prepayment solely depends on what mortgage features are provided by their lender.

With an open mortgage, you can easily make additional payments at any given time. However, if you have a closed mortgage—which makes up the larger percentage of existing mortgages—you will need to check if you have the option of prepayments which would allow you to make extra lump sum payments.

Additionally, there may also be the option to make extra lump sum payments at the end of your existing mortgage term before its time for renewal.

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Real Estate

Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: What you need to know

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Your home is likely the biggest asset you’ll ever own. So how can you protect it in case something were to happen to you? To start, homeowners have a few options to choose from. You can either:

  • ensure you have mortgage protection with a life insurance policy from an insurance company or
  • get mortgage insurance from a bank or mortgage lender.

Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: How do they each work?  

The first thing to know is that life insurance can be a great way to make sure you and your family have mortgage protection.

The money from a life insurance policy usually goes right into the hands of your beneficiaries – not the bank or mortgage lender. Your beneficiaries are whoever you choose to receive the benefit or money from your policy after you die.

Life insurance policies, like term life insurance, come with a death benefit. A death benefit is the amount of money given to your beneficiaries after you die. The exact amount they’ll receive depends on the policy you buy.

With term life insurance, you’re covered for a set period, such as 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. The premium – that’s the monthly or annual fee you pay for insurance – is usually low for the first term.

If you die while you’re coved by your life insurance policy, your beneficiaries will receive a tax-free death benefit. They can then use this money to help pay off the mortgage or for any other reason. So not only is your mortgage protected, but your family will also have funds to cover other expenses that they relied on you to pay.

Mortgage insurance works by paying off the outstanding principal balance of your mortgage, up to a certain amount, if you die.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes directly to the bank or lender to pay off the mortgage – and that’s it. There’s no extra money to cover other expenses, and you don’t get to leave any cash behind to your beneficiaries.

What’s the difference between mortgage insurance and life insurance?

The main difference is that mortgage insurance covers only your outstanding mortgage balance. And, that money goes directly to the bank or mortgage lender, not your beneficiary. This means that there’s no cash, payout or benefit given to your beneficiary. 

With life insurance, however, you get mortgage protection and more. Here’s how it works: every life insurance policy provides a tax-free amount of money (the death benefit) to the beneficiary. The payment can cover more than just the mortgage. The beneficiary may then use the money for any purpose. For example, apart from paying off the mortgage, they can also use the funds from the death benefit to cover:

  • any of your remaining debts,
  • the cost of child care,
  • funeral costs,
  • the cost of child care, and
  • any other living expenses. 

But before you decide between life insurance and mortgage insurance, here are some other important differences to keep in mind:

Who gets the money?

With life insurance, the money goes to whomever you name as your beneficiary.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes entirely to the bank.

Can you move your policy?

With life insurance, your policy stays with you even if you transfer your mortgage to another company. There’s no need to re-apply or prove your health is good enough to be insured.

With mortgage insurance, however, your policy doesn’t automatically move with you if you change mortgage providers. If you move your mortgage to another bank, you’ll have to prove that your health is still good.

Which offers more flexibility, life insurance or mortgage insurance?

With life insurance, your beneficiaries have the flexibility to cover the mortgage balance and more after you die. As the policy owner, you can choose how much insurance coverage you want and how long you need it. And, the coverage doesn’t decline unless you want it to.

With mortgage insurance through a bank, you don’t have the flexibility to change your coverage. In this case, you’re only protecting the outstanding balance on your mortgage.

Do you need a medical exam to qualify? 

With a term life insurance policy from Sun Life, you may have to answer some medical questions or take a medical exam before you’re approved for coverage. Once you’re approved, Sun Life won’t ask for any additional medical information later on.

With mortgage insurance, a bank or mortgage lender may ask some medical questions when you apply. However, if you make a claim after you’re approved, your bank may ask for additional medical information.* At that point, they may discover some conditions that disqualify you from receiving payment on a claim.

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Real Estate

5 common mistakes Canadians make with their mortgages

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This article was created by MoneyWise. Postmedia and MoneyWise may earn an affiliate commission through links on this page.

Since COVID-19 dragged interest rates to historic lows last year, Canadians have been diving into the real estate market with unprecedented verve.

During a time of extraordinary financial disruption, more than 551,000 properties sold last year — a new annual record, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Those sales provided a desperately needed dose of oxygen for the country’s gasping economy.

Given the slew of new mortgages taken out in 2020, there were bound to be slip-ups. So, MoneyWise asked four of the country’s sharpest mortgage minds to share what they feel are the mistakes Canadians most frequently make when securing a home loan.

Mistake 1: Not having your documents ready

One of your mortgage broker’s primary functions is to provide lenders with paperwork confirming your income, assets, source of down payment and overall reliability as a borrower. Without complete and accurate documentation, no reputable lender will be able to process your loan.

But “borrowers often don’t have these documents on hand,” says John Vo of Spicer Vo Mortgages in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “And even when they do provide these documents, they may not be the correct documentation required.”

Some of the most frequent mistakes Vo sees when borrowers send in their paperwork include:

  • Not including a name or other relevant details on key pieces of information.
  • Providing old bank or pay statements instead of those dated within the last 30 days.
  • Sending only a partial document package. If a lender asks for six pages to support your loan, don’t send two. If you’re asked for four months’ worth of bank statements, don’t provide only one.
  • Thinking low-quality or blurry files sent by email or text will be good enough. Lenders need to be able to read what you send them.

If you send your broker an incomplete documents package, the result is inevitable: Your mortgage application will be delayed as long as it takes for you to find the required materials, and your house shopping could be sidetracked for months.

Mistake 2: Blinded by the rate

Ask any mortgage broker and they’ll tell you that the question they’re asked most frequently is: “What’s your lowest rate?”

The interest rate you’ll pay on your mortgage is a massive consideration, so comparing the rates lenders are offering is a good habit once you’ve slipped on your house-hunter hat.

Rates have been on the rise lately given government actions to stimulate the Canadian economy. You may want to lock a low rate now, so you can hold onto it for up to 120 days.

But Chris Kolinski, broker at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based iSask Mortgages, says too many borrowers get obsessed with finding the lowest rate and ignore the other aspects of a mortgage that can greatly impact its overall cost.

“I always ask my clients ‘Do you want to get the best rate, or do you want to save the most money?’ because those two things are not always synonymous,” Kolinski says. “That opens a conversation about needs and wants.”

Many of the rock-bottom interest rates on offer from Canadian lenders can be hard to qualify for, come with limited features, or cost borrowers “a ton” of money if they break their terms, Kolinski points out.

Mistake 3: Not reading the fine print

Dalia Barsoum of Streetwise Mortgages in Woodbridge, Ontario, shares a universal message: “Read the fine print. Understand what you’re signing up for.”

Most borrowers don’t expect they’ll ever break their mortgages, but data collected by TD Bank shows that 7 in 10 homeowners move on from their properties earlier than they expect.

It’s critical to understand your loan’s prepayment privileges and the rules around an early departure. “If you exit the mortgage, how much are you going to pay? It’s really, really important,” Barsoum says.

She has seen too borrowers come to her hoping to refinance a mortgage they received from a private or specialty lender, only to find that what they were attempting was impossible.

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