An employer discriminated contrary to the Human Rights Code when it made offers of voluntary severance packages to its active employees but not to employees on leave due to disabilities, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal held in a recent decision.
The employer, Interfor, and the employees’ union, IWA Canada, entered into a Letter of Understanding (“LOU”) in which packages were offered only to “active” employees. Several employees who suffered from physical and mental disabilities and who were excluded from the LOU because they were not actively at work filed a complaint with the tribunal.
Interfor argued there was no prima facie case of discrimination, since the purpose of severance pay is to compensate for loss of employment. The complainants’ employment status, it argued, was not affected by the LOU. Further, since “non-active” workers who returned to active employment were offered the same benefits under the LOU, Interfor took the position they had not suffered any adverse treatment. Finally, it claimed that there was nothing inherently discriminatory about providing different levels of compensation to employees in different work situations.
The tribunal concluded that the complainants established a prima facie case of discrimination. Relying on a recent decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal, it held that the purpose of severance was to provide an earned benefit to long-serving employees. Denying a disabled employee an employment benefit devalues that employee’s past contributions to employment. The tribunal found that the complainants were treated differently and adversely compared with “active” employees, and that the only factor differentiating their treatment was their disability, a protected ground under the Human Rights Code.