Termination Still Appropriate for Long-Service Employee

An instructional assistant at a vocational school was fired after she was unable to provide plausible explanations for her actions in the face of allegations that she had stolen meat from the school.

M.J. had 20 years’ experience working at a vocational secondary school that provided training in a number of technical programs, including meat cutting and food storage.

Cooked and prepared meats — byproducts of the school’s training programs — were commonly available for sale to staff, students and their parents.

Cash in the coffee tin

Purchases were handled through an informal cash system utilizing a coffee tin that resided on the desk of M.T., the head of the meat department. While students were required to pay cash at point of sale, staff had the option of paying later. In either case, sales were tracked either with receipts for cash sales or with IOU entries into a clipboard held by M.T.

Accompanied by a student on the day in question, M.T. encountered M.J. upon entering the meat instruction classroom, which also housed the meat freezer. It was the middle of the day and the lights were off in the classroom. M.J. was observed near the meat-wrapping machine with a cooler bag under her arm. M.T. jokingly yelled at M.J. in order to get her attention over the noise of the fans in the room. However, there was no response. M.J. neither looked at nor greeted M.T., but instead walked to the opposite end of the room and exited into the adjacent receiving area. As they were co-workers who would normally greet each other, M.T. found this behaviour odd. His disquiet was compounded when the student said, “she’s doing it again. She’s stealing again.”

Meat in the filing cabinet

Informed by M.T. about the encounter, the principal and M.T. immediately investigated M.J.’s workstation, which was vacant. Upon finding the empty cooler bag on her desk, M.T. and the principal surmised that she had placed the meat in the filing cabinet under her desk. While they did not go into her cabinet without authorization, they noticed that the bottom panel of the cabinet was cold to the touch.

The principal then summoned M.J. and a union representative for an interview. Asked first if she had taken any meat from the meat room, M.J. said that she did not know what the principal was talking about. Next asked by the principal if they would find meat at her workstation, she affirmed that they would.

They returned to M.J.’s workstation where she removed a purse from the filing cabinet, which contained four pieces of meat, whereupon she pulled $20 from the purse and asked the principal if he wanted her to pay for it then. She insisted that she had always intended to pay for the meat before leaving for the day. The principal refused the offered payment and asked M.J. to leave.

In a follow-up meeting the next day, M.J. continued to maintain that she had intended to pay for the meat. The meat was in the cooler bag she said and she asserted that her intention to pay was evidenced by the fact that there was a $20 bill beside the cooler pack. At another point, she said the $20 bill was in the cooler pack.

No mitigation

M.J. was fired and the union grieved. Mitigation in view of her long service was not an option as M.J. insisted that she was not guilty of the alleged theft that led to her termination.

The Arbitrator upheld M.J.’s termination, ruling that her story did not add up.

M.J.’s behaviour was peculiar when she was encountered in the darkened classroom by her co-worker — behaviour that was consistent with being caught red-handed, the Arbitrator said. She had later removed the frozen meat from a cooler pack and stashed it in her purse in the bottom of her filing cabinet. She first denied that she had taken any meat and then maintained that she had left a $20 bill to cover the purchase in spite of testimony from both her principal and co-worker that there was no bill in sight — either on the desk or in the cooler bag — when they first came on the scene.

“There are many contradictions in [M.J.’s] evidence, and between her evidence and her earlier statements. She appears to have tried to make up a story to justify her behaviour and to exonerate herself, and that story changed over the course of her various conversations and her evidence.” Her testimony was not credible, the Arbitrator said.

“The Grievor is a long-service employee with a clear work record. However, she does not ask me to mitigate her penalty, relying solely on her contention that she intended to pay for the meat, which I have found not to be credible. The Grievor’s firm denial of her misconduct means that the Employer can have no assurance that it could trust the Grievor if there were a lesser penalty and if she were reinstated in employment. The trust relationship required for continued employment has irretrievably been broken down.”

The grievance was dismissed.

Reference: The Thames Valley District School Board and Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 7575. Christopher Albertyn — Sole Arbitrator. Darcie Buckenauer for the Union and Peter J. Thorup for the Employer. June 22, 2010. 25 pp.

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