Worker’s home burns, employer burns worker (Legal view)

B.C. grocer wrongly assumed worker quit after she disappeared for a month following blaze

A British Columbia business was ordered to pay a former employee $40,000 for acting in bad faith when it assumed she quit and terminated her employment after her home burned down.

Jantsje Beggs, 52, worked in the meat department at the Fairway Market in Port Alberni, B.C., which was owned by Westport Foods. Her duties included ordering food products, shipping and receiving, keeping the food preparation area clean, training new staff and interacting with customers.

Beggs lived in a mobile home with her husband and son. On Feb. 18, 2009, the home and its contents were destroyed in a fire. The family had to temporarily move into her mother’s home nearby and later a rental trailer in the same mobile home park.

The day after the fire, Beggs called her supervisor to tell him about it and say she wouldn’t be coming in that day and didn’t know when she would be able to return.

Over the next month, Beggs and her family had to deal with the insurance company, look for a rental place, arrange for a new home and replace the personal items destroyed in the fire. Her telephone was disconnected for a week but was reconnected with the same number. Her address remained the same as the replacement mobile home would be on the same site.

No contact for a month

After Beggs’ call on Feb. 19, there was no contact between her and Westport for the next month. Westport tried to call her twice in the week after the fire but couldn’t get through because the line was disconnected. Since it had not heard from her, the company assumed she had quit her job since, during a previous absence, Beggs had kept the employer informed of her status on a weekly basis. On March 18, Westport prepared a record of employment (ROE) that said she had quit but it didn’t send it to her.

In early April 2009, Beggs’ doctor diagnosed her with depression and gave her a medical note saying she was unfit to work until the end of May. Beggs intended to go on medical leave and collect employment insurance (EI) benefits, so she contacted Westport for an ROE.

Westport gave Beggs the ROE it had already prepared and a final paycheque. She was so surprised she forgot to hand over the medical note. Despite the ROE saying she quit, the employment office accepted her note and allowed her to receive EI benefits.

In late May, Beggs’ lawyer wrote Westport saying she had not quit and requested 10 months’ notice plus another six months for the way she had been dismissed. Westport responded by saying the ROE was accurate because she had been absent from work for an extended period without giving proper notice or reason. It also said the ROE hadn’t been sent to her because she hadn’t left a forwarding address.

Westport then said Beggs was welcome to return to work and it would advise her of her work schedule and job expectations. Beggs said she was unable to work because she was suffering from anxiety and depression.

Beggs claimed Westport should have made more attempts to contact her after the first week, since her phone was back up and her address didn’t change. She said she was a good employee without any prior problems and the way she was treated after a traumatic experience was “cruel and heartless.”

Treating absence as resignation bad faith: Court

A resignation must be “clear and unequivocal,” noted the court, and Westport did not have clear and unequivocal evidence Beggs quit her job. She was a senior employee with 10 years’ service and a good employment record. After the fire, she told Westport she wasn’t sure when she would be returning to work.

This should have indicated to Westport she intended to return to work when she was able. Even though the company didn’t hear from her after that, it should have gathered more information, said the court. Had it done so, it would have discovered she was suffering from medical issues and the burden of getting her life back in order. Further, she had taken leaves before, including a few weeks out of town to help a friend.

Westport’s offer to come back didn’t specify whether she would get her old job back nor any terms or conditions, found the court. Once it found out she was having anxiety and depression problems, the company didn’t do anything to lessen the impact of its actions.

“The employer made no attempt to apologize or make things right, even after learning that (Beggs’) home had been destroyed by the fire along with most of her belongings; traumatic for anyone,” said the court.

Westport wrongfully dismissed Beggs, found the court, and was ordered to pay her the equivalent of 11 months’ notice, which was $19,981.87. Westport didn’t act in good faith or with a sense of fair dealing by not making better attempts to contact Beggs and finding out her status during a difficult time. Its conduct made her anxiety and depression worse and the issuance of the ROE saying she quit put her employment benefits at risk. For this conduct, the court ordered Westport to pay Beggs an additional $20,000.

For more information see:

Beggs v. Westport Foods Ltd., 2010 CarswellBC 1446 (B.C. S.C.).

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

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