City of Yellowknife 'cold' to employee's childcare needs, adjudicator finds

The City of Yellowknife has lost its bid to overturn a human rights decision that found it discriminated against a former employee.

The city launched the appeal after human rights adjudicator Sheldon Toner awarded a former booking clerk $55,342.54 in damages.

Toner found the city took a "cold and formalistic" approach when the woman, who is only identified by her initials in the decisions, said she needed to take the 2012 summer school holiday off to care for her son who has autism. 

According to Toner's written decision, the woman had been allowed to take the summer of 2011 off from work to care for her son. But the summer student that filled in for her made mistakes that other employees — notably the woman's direct supervisor, the programs manager — had to spend time fixing.

Months after the woman returned to work, the decision reads, the city sent the programs manager to a course in human rights.

"He took away from the course an understanding that accommodation need not be automatic but could take into account the employer's operational needs," Toner wrote. 

The following March, the woman again requested the summer off to take care of her son. This time, the city asked for a doctor's note and evidence that no child care was available. The woman then provided notes from two doctors saying she needed the time off to take care of her son.

Alex Brockman/CBC

"There is every indication in the letters that the doctors were available for questions, but the respondent's employees were dismissive," wrote the adjudicator.

"The respondent's employees failed to take any interest in the child's diagnosis, which they needed to do in order to make appropriate inquiries. They chose instead to presume they understood the childcare issue, and to uncharitably misinterpret the complainant's comments."

The city offered to let the woman work evenings and weekends, but she said that would not allow her to take care of her son while he was off school. When the summer break began, the woman took vacation time and when that ran out, on July 15, she resigned.

The same month, the woman filed the human rights complaint claiming the city discriminated against her in her employment on the basis of her family status. 

Managers became 'entrenched' in refusal to accommodate

Employers must make an effort to accommodate employee needs protected by human rights law.

"But also part of the discussion is the understanding that there's a reasonable limit that an organization or service provider has to go to accommodate needs," explained Charles Dent, chair of the N.W.T. Human Rights Commission.

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Employers must make every effort to accommodate employee needs up to the point of what's known as "undue hardship," which includes things such as prohibitive costs and creating health or safety risks, said Dent. 

The line between reasonable accommodation and undue hardship varies with the size of an organization Dent said. Big ones with many employees who can fill different roles or work different hours are more able to adapt without disrupting their operations than a small business with three employees, for example. 

The City of Yellowknife has 188 employees. 

Toner said the city should not have been surprised when the woman asked for the summer off since she had taken off the previous summer. 

The woman's supervisors made no attempt to train any casual employees or summer students to do the woman's job while she was away, Toner noted. Instead, the city "became entrenched in its refusal to accommodate."

The city said it's reviewing the appeal decision. It said all the costs of the appeal were covered by insurance.

Speaking through her lawyer, the woman who filed the complaint declined to comment for this story.