September 15, 2015

Decision emphasizes that employer must avoid stereotypes and assumptions about addiction

A Government-appointed human rights adjudicator found that a woman was discriminated against by her employer, the Northern Regional Health Authority, because it could not demonstrate that it had reasonably accommodated her disability-related needs. 

After reporting to work smelling like alcohol on one occasion, the woman was suspended.  Although she admitted to struggling with alcohol use and was willing to seek treatment, the employer refused to let her return to work unless she agreed to abstain entirely from alcohol.    Initially she refused to agree to the abstinence condition because she believed it to be discriminatory.  Several months later, however, she signed an agreement committing to complete abstinence.  Before she could return to the workplace, the employer received reports from co-workers that she was drinking, including one that she appeared drunk in a grocery store.  The woman denied that she had been drinking, but her employment was still terminated.

The woman’s complaint to The Manitoba Human Rights Commission was heard by an independent adjudicator.  The Commission argued that the employer had not acted reasonably because it did not consider the input of the woman’s addictions counselor or any other treating professional in setting her return to work conditions. The Commission was clear that an employer must always consider safety, and in the case of addictions an abstinence requirement may certainly be appropriate in some cases, but not without assessment of the individual.

In her decision, Chief Adjudicator Sherri Walsh wrote, “It is important to recognize that it constitutes discrimination for an employer to rely on personal experiences and common place assumptions or stereotypes rather than on objective assessments when determining an accommodation plan for an employee who has a disability.  Unfortunately I find such discrimination occurred in this case.”

The Adjudicator confirmed that the union’s participation in discussions did not preclude her from assessing whether the woman had been discriminated against.  This highlights that employers and unions cannot contract out of their human rights obligations.

The Adjudicator ordered the employer to develop and implement a reasonable accommodation policy and, for the first time in Manitoba, ordered that the woman be reinstated to her position with back pay for the more than 3 years that she has been out of the workplace and $10,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect.  The Adjudicator also directed that the woman undergo an assessment by an addictions expert before she would be returned to work.

The Board of Commissioner’s Chairperson, Yvonne Peters, noted that “the seriousness of the impact that discrimination and harassment can have on individuals is being given greater attention in determining general damages awarded.”  

This decision reinforces the obligation on employers to recognize the individual worth and dignity of all, and to avoid acting based on stereotypes or assumptions about addiction or disability more generally.

The full decision may be found at http://www.manitobahumanrights.ca/publications/legal/decision_horrocks.html

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Pam Roberts
Human Rights Officer, Communications
Manitoba Human Rights Commission
204-726-6262
Email: pam.roberts@gov.mb.ca