Ontario Court Affirms “Family Status” Protection in the Workplace

May 2016

Article by: Gavin Marshall

Previously printed in the LexisNexis Labour Notes Newsletter.

Family status discrimination, and the related obligation to accommodate family status, continues its trajectory of growth in the landscape of workplace legal relationships. Employers diminish the importance of employee obligations to family, especially children, at their peril.

Take the example of Partridge v. Botony Dental Corporation, 2015 ONCA 836 of December 3, 2015. What appeared to be a run-of-the-mill wrongful dismissal case, with the employer alleging just cause for the removal of confidential business information, took on an aspect of human rights discrimination in circumstances where the employer changed scheduling requirements without consideration of the employee’s child care obligations.

Partridge was the office manager at a dental office. She had seven years of service with the employer. When she returned from her second maternity leave, she was demoted to dental hygienist, despite her protest that the action ran contrary to Botony’s employment standards obligations. The dismissal came a short week after her return from the leave, but not before the employer added a work schedule that conflicted with the new mother’s obligations to care for her child, including pick-ups and drop-offs for the purpose of child care. Partridge testified at trial that the emergency arrangements she made during that period of time (for the week before she was fired) were unsustainable because they relied on the kindness and temporary availability of relatives.

A judgment at trial awarded 12 months of damages to the office manager, even though she was 36 years old and had readily found temporary employment. The trial judge also awarded $20,000 damages for breach of the Ontario Human Rights Code, which expressly permits a court in that province to award monetary compensation for a human rights breach.

The take-away from this and other similar cases which have focused on family status discrimination is clear. In the modern workplace, the need to accommodate family obligations is becoming more and more concrete as obligations and rights in specific situations are delineated by adjudicators in various venues, including courts with jurisdiction to hear and decide cases of alleged human rights discrimination.  Employers have no choice but to consider the impact of work on family obligations, and ignore the expanding scope of family status at their peril.