Company terminated workers before sawmill closed to avoid paying severance: Tribunal
Pulp and paper company Weyerhaeuser discriminated against four disabled employees when it fired them months before it closed a sawmill and handed out severance to existing employees, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal has ruled.
On June 15, 2007, Weyerhaeuser terminated Peter Wakeling, Williams Iceton, Ingrid Schellenberg and Dave Cardoso. All four were employees at the company’s sawmill in Okanagan Fall, B.C. who were on long-term disability (LTD) leave. Wakeling had been with Weyerhaeuser for 33 years and had to go on disability benefits when he became confined to a wheelchair because of cerebellar ataxia. Iceton was a 28-year forklift driver who went on LTD in 2005 because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Schellenberg was hired full-time in 1992 but became ill 9 months later, going on LTD for Bell’s Palsy, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Cardoso was a chipper operator for 16 years before going on LTD in 1995.
The tribunal heard evidence that Weyerhaeuser had a corporate directive to fix, sell of close its sawmills since June 2006 and plans to close the Okanagan Mills sawmill were finalized in the summer of 2007. According to the collective agreement, upon plant closure, each employee would be paid 10 days of pay for each year of service.
The tribunal found Weyerhaeuser knew it would be closing the sawmill when it terminated the disabled employees and it decided to terminate them to avoid paying them severance when the plant closed. This amounted to discrimination because of their mental and physical disabilities, the tribunal said.
Weyerhaeuser was ordered to reinstate the employees to their employment status at the time of termination and pay them severance according to the collective agreement. The tribunal also ordered the company to pay each employee compensation for injury to their dignity, feelings and self-respect, ranging from $5,000 to Schellenberg to $20,000 to Wakeling. The total award to the employees was more than $267,000.
A Weyerhaeuser spokesperson said the company didn’t agree with the tribunal’s finding but would follow its decision without an appeal.
“Hopefully Weyerhaeuser and other employers out there will learn from the case that they can simply not discard injured workers in the future,” said Pat McGregor, first vice-president and business agent of United Steelworkers Local 1-423, the bargaining unit representing the four employees. “Our members and all employees must be treated with dignity and respect.”