No need to go to extremes to protect disability benefit

Injured nurse limited to part-timer benefits

If an employee is disabled, how far does the employer have to go to preserve that employee’s benefits? Is the employer obliged to find that employee full-time work to preserve the employee’s maximum long-term disability benefits?

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench recently faced this question in the case of Barbara Smith, a nurse at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandria Hospital.

Smith had worked full-time at the Royal Alexandria when she became disabled by a non-work related condition. She attempted to return to work under a program funded by the hospital’s long-term disability insurer, but she was too injured to complete the program.

To accommodate her, the hospital placed her in regular part-time work, at .42 of full-time, offering her extra work whenever it was available. Under its short-term disability provisions, Royal Alexandria’s insurer topped up Smith’s income to the full-time level, including full-time benefits.

Because Smith was not totally disabled from any occupation, the short-term benefits terminated after six months.

Then, the unfortunate Smith was in a motor-vehicle accident which disabled her from working at all. She began receiving benefits under Royal Alexandria’s short-term plan, calculated at the .42 rate. She and her union grieved, claiming that .42 benefits amounted to unfair discrimination.

As part of its duty to accommodate her, she said, the hospital should have paid her premiums at the full-time rate so that she would have been receiving full-time benefits after the accident.

The labour arbitration board held that in attempting to find Smith alternative work during her original illness, the hospital had met its obligations under the collective agreement and human rights law.

The board concluded that, while the hospital’s efforts to accommodate Smith with a part-time job had caused her to receive reduced benefits, this was preferable to placing the hospital in a better position for not accommodating her at all (or, to put it another way, to punish the hospital for giving her at least some work and benefits).

The court has affirmed the board’s decision, noting that the hospital’s obligation was not to create a position for Smith but to attempt to find an appropriate position for her in the special circumstances.

The Royal Alexandria treated Smith no differently than it treated any other employee in the bargaining unit, the court says. Smith suffered no direct or adverse-effect discrimination.

For more information:

U.N.A., Local 33 v. Capital Health Authority, Alta. Q.B. file 9903-12195, Dec. 22/99.

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