Court orders 60-day dispute resolution between INAC and the complainant
The federal labour relations board says a former public servant and University of Ottawa graduate was wrongfully terminated for working as a teaching assistant at the university while on sick leave for an anxiety disorder.
The former employee, who obtained a PhD in economics this year, worked as an economist for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), and filed for sick leave in September of 2011.
The order from the labour board, dated July 5 of this year, states that there were valid reasons for her absence and that she was discriminated against in her termination. On reviewing the case, adjudicator David Olsen ordered the parties to negotiate an agreement.
The court document states, “the respondent’s decision to deem (the employee) to have abandoned her position was not reasonable,” and that, “the grievor failed to fulfil her obligation to fully explain her absence to the employer.”
The employee argued that her employer discriminated against her in violation of the Canadian Human Rights Act, and her supervisor “contributed to the deterioration of her health as well as to her absence.”
She asked the board that her termination be deemed null and void, and for six years of wages and damages. The objection was withdrawn as untimely.
Currently, the case is before the court.
Case events and proceedings
In February of 2013, the employee learned she was terminated as she was preparing to return to work.
Her supervisor learned in January 2012, that she was working as a teaching assistant while pursuing a PhD at the U of O. Between January and November of that year, the employer sent five letters asking for an explanation of her absence.
Because she did not respond to the letters, her supervisor said he assumed she abandoned her position.
The employee said she did not respond to the letters on the advice of two doctors who advised against responding because the relationship with her employer may have been contributing to her condition.” However, the doctors suggested that she “establish a liaison with the employer.”
In the fall of 2010, she and her employer had established a flexible work arrangement while she pursued PhD studies. She filed for education leave, which was denied.
In July of 2011, The employee attempted to file a harassment complaint toward her direct supervisor, but was rejected because the complaint was deemed as not meeting the threshold of harassment.
Later that year, a psychologist issued a recommendation that the employee not return to work until she was seen by a psychiatrist.
The court document states that the psychologist believed her work conditions were aggravating her health and that, “she should become involved in activities that would contribute to her well-being, such as working as a teaching assistant.”
At this time, the University of Ottawa contacted the director of INAC and notified him that the employee was pursuing PhD studies and working as a teaching assistant while still formally employed with the INAC. The director then issued a letter to the University of Ottawa asking for more information about her status.
The director asked that the employee meet to discuss the situation, but she did not respond. A statement on the employee’s LinkedIn profile reads that while pursuing her doctorate she “was on leave in the winter and summer of 2011 and the summer of 2012.”
As of December 2012, the employee saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with anxiety and depression, and “concluded that stressors at work were a contributing factor.”
In February of 2013, her medical doctor said she could return to work. However, in November 2012, INAC had terminated the employee’s employment agreement.
The parties involved in this case could not be reached for a comment. Meanwhile, the Fulcrum reached out to University of Ottawa experts in the disciplines of law, labour, and disability rights, who declined to comment.
Saying both parties were at fault, Olsen gave the employee and her employer 60 days to resolve the issue—a timeframe that has since passed.
Currently, under section 1.1 of the Ontario Human Rights Code, a person with a disability must “answer questions or provide information about relevant restrictions or limitations, including information from health-care professionals.”
Whereas, section seven of the Canadian Human Rights Act states, “it is a discriminatory practice, directly or indirectly, to refuse to employ or continue to employ any individual … on a prohibited ground of discrimination.”