Medical assessments used to punish employees: union

Federal public-sector rule on health evaluation misused, says PSAC

Most employers consider workers going off on medical leave to be a cost. But the federal public-sector union is saying that, in certain federal departments, some managers are forcing employees to go on sick leave as a disciplinary measure.

They’re doing so by allegedly requesting employees who aren’t sick to undergo a medical assessment and not to come in until the assessment is done.

Ed Cashman, regional executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said he sees a trend where workers are asked to go for an assessment when they have a personality conflict or a behavioural problem at work.

He couldn’t provide figures, but said the trend is seen in certain offices at Transport Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

As set out by Treasury Board Secretariat, managers may request staff to undergo a “fitness to work evaluation” to determine if they have been affected by a workplace hazard or are medically fit to carry out the tasks of a specific job. Such evaluations are conducted at Health Canada’s Workplace Health and Public Safety Program.

According to Health Canada spokesperson Renée Bergeron, departments should arrange for a fitness-to-work evaluation when an employee is exposed to an unexpected occupational health hazard, such as a chemical spill, when an employee changes jobs and would be exposed to different health hazards, when she has been on medical leave for a long time and there’s no established return date, or when she returns from medical leave and it’s not clear what duties she’s capable of.

Managers may also refer someone for an evaluation if he appears to be having difficulty performing the duties of his position or if health-related factors appear to be affecting him.

Cashman said he understands that following certain high profile cases of workplace violence, such as the 1999 shooting at OC Transpo in Ottawa where a worker shot and killed four employees, employers are taking seriously the responsibility to watch for potential behavioural problems that may erupt at a toxic environment.

“Since that time, we’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of employers sending workers to be evaluated. What we’re finding in 2006 is there’s a clear abuse where people who do not need to see a doctor and who come back with a clean bill of physical health and mental health (are sent for evaluation). And it makes you wonder if it’s not the supervisor who should be sent,” said Cashman.

He pointed to the example of Maria Blair, a supervisor working at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency with nearly 140 sick leave credits (federal employees are allowed about 15 days of sick leave credits a year, which can be banked from one year to the next). She had been having difficulties with her immediate supervisor for several months, mainly over such issues as role boundaries and job descriptions, and things reached the point where a disciplinary meeting had to be arranged.

At the last minute, however, the meeting was cancelled and Blair was sent home to take sick leave until a Health Canada assessment could be done. A week later, the director followed up with a letter that said he was concerned about her state of health, citing her actions over the previous few weeks as reason for the assessment.

Blair refused, saying she was not sick and that a note from her own doctor said so, said her union representative Marlene O’Neil. Until Blair gets an evaluation from Health Canada, however, she has to stay home and draw down her sick leave credits.

Health Canada’s spokesperson Bergeron said though there has been a “steady, but modest, increase” in the number of fitness to work evaluations since 2000, she could not provide specific numbers due to medical confidentiality concerns.

At the Treasury Board Service, the employer of federal public-service employees, chief of media relations Robert Makichuk couldn’t comment on specific cases. He did note, however, that an evaluation can only be performed with the employee’s consent, and while general practitioners can speak to the general health of an individual, only an evaluation by an occupational health physician can speak to the capacity of the employee to perform a given job.

Makichuk said the policy centres at the Treasury Board are “aware of what the alliance has been alleging and of course they take it seriously.” He added that the Treasury Board does not gather overall data and that departments are responsible for dealing with their own cases.

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