“The Lord said ‘let there be wheat’ and Saskatchewan was born” – Stephen Leacock

Saskatchewan has long been synonymous with farming. The 2011 census suggests that while there are currently fewer farms in this province than in years past, they are more productive than ever. And one reason for this efficiency is the use of hired help: more than one-third of farms were reported to have hired paid labourers.

In Rocking Hills Cattle Co. Ltd. v. Saskatchewan (Director of Labour Standards), 2012 SKCA, the central issue was the interpretation of section 4(3) of The Labour Standards Act, which provides that the Act does not apply to “…an employee employed primarily in farming, ranching or market gardening”.

In Rocking Hills, the employee had worked as the bookkeeper and office manager for Rocking Hills Ranch, a large ranching operation near Kenaston, Saskatchewan. Over her six-year period of full-time, year-round employment with Rocking Hills Ranch, she had not been compensated for overtime, public holiday pay, or annual holiday pay. The employer took the position that her position was exempt under section 4(3) of the Act because she was an employee engaged in farming or ranching.

The Director of Labour Standards issued a wage assessment requiring Rocking Hills to pay the employee $6,280 in overtime and holiday pay. On appeal of this assessment, the adjudicator upheld the assessment. Rocking Hills then appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

Madam Justice Gunn upheld the decision of the adjudicator and held that the exemption set out in section 4(3) of the Act applies only if an employee is engaged in “farm type” or “ranch type work”. In other words, in Justice Gunn’s view, the fact that the employee worked for a ranching operation was immaterial and the fundamental question was instead the nature of the employee’s work for the employer. Thus, because the employee was doing a non-ranching job, she did not fit within the exemption and Rocking Hills should have been paying her overtime and holiday pay over the period of her employment.

Rocking Hills then applied for leave to appeal to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. In his decision to grant leave to appeal, Mr. Justice Richards recognized that there are inconsistent Saskatchewan decisions on the interpretation of the exemption provided to farming and ranching operations under section 4(3) of the Act. Some decisions corresponded with Madam Justice Gunn’s conclusion but there were other authorities that Mr. Justice Richards pointed to that suggest that non-farm or ranch related work can fall within the section 4(3) exemption if the employee is employed by a bona fide farmer or rancher. Thus, in light of the inconsistent decisions surrounding the interpretation of the exemption provision, Mr. Justice Richards granted leave to appeal.

In light of the agricultural landscape in Saskatchewan, it will be interesting to monitor the results of this appeal, which has not yet been heard. Will the farming/ranching exemption depend upon whether or not the employee is actually doing farm/ranching work or is the exemption available simply because the employee works for a farming or ranching operation? The answer could have a significant impact upon the farm or ranch employer’s obligations to its employees.

Kit McGuiness, articling student in the Saskatoon office, contributed significantly to this article.