Seniority reigns supreme

Long-term staffer unfairly passed over for promotion: Union

Della Pokolm was a long-term employee at the Heartland Regional Health Authority when she was defeated in her application for the position of head environmental and laundry services worker.

The Saskatchewan-based employer passed Pokolm over for a far junior applicant, despite the company’s longstanding emphasis on seniority.

The Service Employees International Union filed a grievance on Pokolm’s behalf, arguing she was unfairly passed over for the position.

The role of head environmental and laundry services worker — commonly referred to as the "head position" — involved the maintenance of a clean and safe environment and the supply of laundry-related services to clients and staff.

The position also required the ability to support collaboration between the environmental and laundry and the linen departments.

The collective agreement provides vacant positions be filled on the basis of seniority, provided "the applicant possesses the necessary qualifications required to fill the position and the ability to perform the work." Seniority is determined based on hours worked.

There were two applicants for the position. Both were interviewed. The successful candidate, Debbie Shea, had 1,859.5 hours on the seniority list as of Sept. 30, 2012.

Pokolm first began working for the employer in 1997. She worked 11 years as an environmental services workers and two years as a laundry services worker. She had 28,409.29 hours on the seniority list.

Facility manager Sharon Forsyth was ultimately responsible for the decision to hire Shea. Forsyth testified that, in her view, Pokolm did not have the necessary communication, leadership and organizational skills necessary to do the job.

During the interview process when she asked Pokolm what made her qualified for the position, Forsyth testified, Pokolm simply replied "seniority."

The union submitted that the concept of seniority in a collective agreement must be treated with the utmost respect. The union further argued a seniority-based system is objective, fair and far preferable when compared with the competitive and aggressive culture created when workers are pitted against one another for jobs and promotions.

Forsyth said she understood the employer’s policy on hiring the most senior applicant, but said that in her view Pokolm did not possess the skills and abilities to be considered able to perform the job. She therefore selected Shea for the position.

Arbitrator William F.J. Hood, however, found the skills Forsyth considered to be of highest priority were not in keeping with the requirements of the collective agreement.

"It is important at the outset to differentiate between qualifications and ability," Hood said. "There is no dispute the grievor had the necessary qualifications for the head position."

Hood found the employer acted unreasonably in assessing Pokolm’s ability to perform the head position.

"Simply put, Ms. Forsyth raised the bar to an arbitrarily high level. She preferred her views on what would be a perfect fit for the head position over the threshold requirements of the head position. Ms. Forsyth over-emphasized, and in my view unreasonably so, some of the skills required in this position."

Hood found Pokolm had the necessary and immediate ability to perform the position and sustained the grievance, ruling the employer breached provisions of the collective agreement when it passed her over for the position.

The employer was ordered to appoint Pokolm to the head position and to compensate her for the difference in pay lost as a result of the delay in obtaining the position.

Reference: Heartland Regional Health Authority and the Service Employees International Union. William F.J. Hood — arbitrator. Robert Frost-Hinz for the employer, Heather Jensen for the union. Oct. 15, 2014.

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