Pushed up against a wall. Targeted by threats and intimidation. Spit in the face. This was part of the employment experience according to some former Air Canada employees, many of whom worked for the airline for years. But when they denounced their tormentors, they say the company made their lives difficult.
HuffPost Quebec spoke with four women and one man who were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their time with Air Canada. Four of them were victims of workplace harassment and were fired while on sick leave. The fifth was diagnosed following her abrupt dismissal, which she says was unfair.
They worked at Air Canada bases in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario as customer service representatives, flight attendants or baggage handlers. All of them — as well as several other current and past employees contacted by HuffPost — described a "toxic" work environment and an employer more willing to get rid of victims than to defend them.
They don't appear to be isolated cases. Documents obtained through an Access to Information Act request show that the Canadian Human Rights Commission has received 462 complaints from Air Canada employees about discrimination or harassment since 1996.
Years of harassment
When KS started as a baggage handler at Toronto Pearson International Airport in 2000, she immediately felt that she wasn't welcome. (She asked to be identified only by her initials to avoid conflict with ongoing legal proceedings related to her employment case.)
"There was just this 'women don't belong here kind of attitude'," she said. "It's a typical situation when you work in a male-dominated field. But it wasn't too bad, at first. The main thing was sexist comments and being treated differently because you were a woman."
Less than six months after she was hired, she hurt her back carrying an overweight suitcase. After taking time off work, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) determined that her accident caused permanent limitations and ruled that she be assigned tasks that were less physically demanding.
From then on, she belonged to the class of disabled workers, called "CL2" internally, or "second-class employees," KS explained.
The guy had me pinned against the wall and started using very abrasive and crude language and sexually explicit language. And I was scared. KS
Because of her back problems, she applied for a supervisor position, which requires less physical tasks. She got the job. During her training for the new role, she said that a colleague — who had failed the supervisor exam — cornered her on the upper deck of a Boeing 747.
"The guy had me pinned against the wall and started using very abrasive and crude language and sexually explicit language. And I was scared," she said. "He had his forearm across my throat area and basically saying I didn't deserve the position even though ... I had passed the test."
KS said that she reported the incident to a supervisor, who responded by saying that "anyway, women don't belong here." She said she received this type of response several times when she approached union representatives over the years.
"I quickly realized I wasn't going to get any help," she told HuffPost. "I faced a lot of verbal abuse and threats throughout my career for just ... doing my job."
This was echoed by Susan Sproule, a customer service employee who harassed by two superiors after lodging a complaint about poor workplace health and safety practices in Air Canada's Montreal offices.
"It was a personal problem. They didn't like me," she said in an interview.
Sproule maintains that she never had any problems with her employer or colleagues during her first 22 years of service with the company. "I was rewarded many times by my employer," she said adamantly, pointing out she was even in charge of training new employees.
Her problems began after she requested that an evacuation plan be implemented for the offices, as required by law, in her role as as union health and safety representative.
She believes that her repeated requests were received particularly poorly because she is a woman. "They had a problem with women," said Sproule.
Between 2010 and 2012, the situation deteriorated. Sproule claims one of the managers went so far as to spit in her face.
Air Canada was in the headlines this spring when the union that represents flight attendants filed a complaint with the human rights commission, claiming that the airline's uniform and makeup policies are sexist and discriminatory.
In April, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal heard the case of a former Air Canada pilot, Jane Clegg, who alleges that she was subject to sexism on the job. There is no decision yet in the case.
More from HuffPost Canada:
Report confirmed 'toxic work environment'
HuffPost was given access to a report from an independent investigation conducted by Keshill Consulting and commissioned by Air Canada. It lists several incidents where both of Sproule's bosses intimidated her, and even threatened her with retaliation for things she did in her capacity as a union health and safety rep.
The report states that one of the bosses "promised" Sproule that he would "make life very difficult for her" after she filed a complaint with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to call attention to health and safety issues at the company's Montreal office.
Sproule's other boss allegedly reprimanded her in front of colleagues, because she had initiated an evacuation of their offices due to a high level of carbon monoxide. According to the report, he told his employees that if they couldn't handle the potentially dangerous gas, "maybe they aren't cut out for this job" and they should "think carefully before leaving the office [if they want] to have a long career with the company."
The report confirms that Sproule was harassed by both men and was subject to "a toxic work environment." It also found that the two bosses threatened and intimidated other employees — and one of them made sexual advances to certain female staff.
"[Both bosses]'s actions are in direct violation of Air Canada's Workplace Harassment policy," said the report. "[Their] acts and behaviours represent intimidation, demeaning and condescending behaviours towards [their] employees in the workplace."
Air Canada declined to comment on Sproule's case because it is going to arbitration soon.
The airline also refused to answer HuffPost Quebec's questions about other cases of harassment. In an email, company spokesman Tim Fisher said that "Air Canada does not tolerate any form of harassment or discrimination in the workplace."
He pointed out that Air Canada has an office that deals with harassment questions. "We put in place a reliable system and well-defined procedures that may include consulting with external experts, in case an employee feels they are a victim of harassment or discrimination," he said.
For KS, the harassment worsened over the years. "It was an extremely toxic work environment. I was constantly belittled for being a woman and for having physical limitations," she said.
Starting in 2006, "degrading and repulsive" graffiti targeting women and disabled employees began to appear regularly at her place of work. "Our superiors just walked right by it without saying or doing anything," KS recalled.
An investigation report by the WSIB confirmed that the graffiti "seemed to target CL2s" and that KS had communicated her concerns to colleagues and a supervisor who had seen it.
KS believes the CL2s were blamed for the salary cuts Air Canada employees were forced to agree to after the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003.
"Even the managers pointed to us and told the others, 'That's why your salaries were cut by 20 per cent. There are too many employees faking to be disabled and it's hurting Air Canada. If we could get rid of them, you wouldn't have to take a wage cut,'" she recalled.
Things reached a breaking point in May 2010 when the graffiti turned into a death threat. "They wrote: 'Die, bitch' with my name," said KS, her voice breaking with emotion.
That day, she left on sick leave. She was later diagnosed with PTSD resulting from the incident.
Fired while on sick leave
Sproule, KS and another employee who spoke to HuffPost were all fired by Air Canada while on sick leave following their individual workplace harassment experiences. In all three cases, the company never denied that the harassment described in external investigation reports had taken place, but terminated the victims anyway.
Before going on sick leave, KS had filled out a WSIB claim form and corresponded by email with several supervisors to provide them with the required documents. Yet, she still received three letters from Air Canada warning that she would be fired if she didn't show up at her next shift.
The claims submitted by both KS and Sproule were eventually accepted. But they never returned to work. They say Air Canada refused to accommodate the functional limitations granted them respectively by the WSIB and the Quebec Commission for Standards, Equity, and Occupational Health and Safety (CNESST).
I was diagnosed with severe PTSD and I was having panic attacks every time I got close to the airport. KS
Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an employer has a legal obligation to accommodate disabled employees — and under the law, situational depression is considered a disability — unless they can demonstrate that such an accommodation would constitute "undue hardship."
For example, KS needed to be transferred away from Pearson airport in Toronto on her doctor's orders. "I was diagnosed with severe PTSD and I was having panic attacks every time I got close to the airport," she explained.
But Air Canada offered her another position in a hangar at Pearson, arguing that that wasn't part of the airport. WSIB determined that the job wasn't appropriate, so she turned it down.
Air Canada was adamant that it couldn't offer her another role that fit her functional limitations in the Greater Toronto Area, said KS. So she moved to Halifax in the hopes that the airline would be able to find her a new position there.
A few weeks later, the airline did offer her a new job — in a call centre in Toronto. "This was after they repeatedly told me they would never, ever be able to accommodate me in Toronto outside of Pearson," she recalled, still incredulous six years later.
"I fell to pieces and had a nervous breakdown. My doctors decided that I wouldn't ever go back to work for Air Canada because the company wasn't taking their duty to accommodate seriously," she said.
Air Canada officially terminated KS in 2013. Five years later, and eight years after taking sick leave, she is still waiting for her case to be heard by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
Sproule also filed a complaint with the human rights commission. It was put on hold as they wait for the results of arbitration that is supposed to take place this summer, but she may be referred to the tribunal if there is no resolution.
Sproule says Air Canada refused to take into consideration two doctors' recommendations that her return to work should be progressive and include medical and psychological follow-up, as well as reconciliation therapy and mediation.
Instead, the company offered her up to three years' salary if she agreed to retire immediately. As a result, her pension would have been reduced by more than half and she would have had to agree to sign non-disclosure agreements and renounce any further legal recourse. Sproule claims Air Canada also refused to reimburse more than $23,000 in medical expenses related to the workplace harassment.
After refusing the offer, she received a letter ordering her to show up to work the following Monday or face termination. Still suffering from serious panic attacks, she stayed home. Less than a month later, she was fired for failing to report to work "without a valid reason."
It's not unheard of for Air Canada employees to be fired while on sick leave. In July 2016, the company sent letters to some 300 employees on sick leave, informing them they would be terminated if they didn't show up to work.
Unifor, which represents approximately 100 members affected by the decision, recently lost its case in arbitration. The Canadian Union of Public Employees and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), who represent other employees, are still waiting for their arbitration.
The arbitrator in Unifor's case determined that Air Canada had the right to terminate the employment of workers who had been on disability leave for more than three years. However, the decision noted that verifications have to be made in each case before the dismissal can be formalized.
Although he describes Air Canada's manoeuvre as "pretty odious," the Quebec council chair for Unifor, Benoit Lapointe, believes that "the majority of employees affected will fare pretty well despite it all" because many of them would be entitled to an early retirement package.
Based on the interviews with former employees and evidence gathered by HuffPost, it does appear that the unions who are supposed to represent them were far from proactive in defending their interests.
Sproule said that Unifor filed no complaint on her behalf before April 2016, almost four years to the day when she submitted her first official complaint to Air Canada's human resources department.
"They should have filed a complaint in conjunction with my official complaint; that's their duty," she said of Unifor. "Not doing so goes against our collective agreement."
However, an email sent by Lapointe, her union representative at the time, implied that a complaint was about to be sent in. "I too am fed up of waiting for the company and will file a grievance at the beginning of next week if nothing happens in the meantime," Lapointe wrote on Sept. 21, 2012.
Almost four years later, in April 2016, an official grievance alleged that Air Canada "violated the Canadian Human Rights Act, as well as the collective agreement, by not attempting to accommodate the return to work of the grievor."
Lapointe says that if Sproule mistakenly believed a grievance had been filed earlier, it's "because she doesn't remember what happened at the time very well."
"We did talk about filing a grievance," he confirmed. "But we didn't need to do it, because a resolution was reached."
He noted that Air Canada agreed to have an external investigator review the case, pointing out that "people on the management side lost their jobs." Therefore, the union did not believe a grievance was necessary.
"I don't want to go into details, but there was a favourable resolution for Ms. Sproule," said Lapointe.
He also said that Unifor provided Sproule with a litigator free of charge, so she could obtain the CNESST benefits she was entitled to. The union is under no obligation to do that, Lapointe added.
"I understand that Ms. Sproule has some frustration, of course, because what happened to her is deplorable. But to say that Unifor let her down is absolutely wrong. We've been here since the start."
Lapointe thinks Sproule's perception of her union's work is clouded.
"I've had to deal with difficult cases in my career, and Ms. Sproule's is one of them. Unfortunately, they are cases where these people have suffered tremendously. And sometimes, they are in a state where ... they are a bit disconnected from reality and might not see the full picture."
Disputed incident with pilot, passengers
Unifor also took a long time filing a complaint to defend Johanne*, whose story is a little different from the others. The 28 years she worked at Air Canada were happy ones. She liked her work, and she had a "passion for customer service," according to a recommendation letter written by a former boss. She proudly kept all the thank you notes she had received from passengers over the course of her career.
"In 28 years, I received no complaints, not a single one. I wouldn't say I was a perfect attendant, because no one is perfect. But 98 per cent of the time, I was pretty perfect," Johanne said. (She asked that her real name not be published due to ongoing legal proceedings that she initiated against her own union.)
Then one event turned her life upside down.
One day when the workload was especially demanding, she remembered, an Air Canada pilot got upset with her after an incident with a group of passengers.
A misunderstanding over a lost stroller turned into an altercation. The group accused Johanne of hitting one of the passengers with her radio, which she denies. She claimed that she had to file a police complaint because one of the female passengers had grabbed her arm.
The pilot, who Johanne claims did not witness the actual incident, apparently threatened to report her behaviour to Air Canada's security department, and subsequently supported the passengers' version of events.
The next day, Johanne was suspended, "pending an investigation." Two weeks later, she received a letter of termination.
The news sent her into a deep depression and she was diagnosed with PTSD. "I was unable to understand what was happening to me," she remembered, in tears.
She said that neither her union nor the company took into account a video captured by airport security cameras that, in her view, proved that the pilot lied about Johanne's behaviour during the incident.
"I later learned that the pilot was a friend of one of the Air Canada vice-presidents," she said.
The events surrounding her suspension and termination are troubling. She believes that Air Canada "railroaded" her "to please a friend of a vice-president." She claims that her union, Unifor, acted in bad faith and did not defend her the way they are supposed to under Article 47.2 of the Labour Code.
Unifor is in Air Canada's pocket. They are in collusion. Johanne
First, the union did not file a complaint when she was suspended, and several clauses of the collective agreement seem to have been ignored. Johanne said she was never informed in writing that her suspension was subject to termination.
She was suspended for two weeks, even though the collective agreement allows for a maximum of three business days, at most, for a suspension pending investigation. The first complaint was filed after her termination.
Without referring to Johanne's case, Lapointe explained that Unifor doesn't always file a grievance when suspensions last longer than the three-day limit, as long as employees continue to be paid.
Johanne's termination letter is dated the day after she was suspended, when no investigation could have possibly taken place because Air Canada did not yet have access to the video. Her union representative brushed it off as "a typo."
We are most certainly not conniving with Air Canada. Benoit Lapointe, Unifor
She said she saw her "perfect" employee record in the union office on the day she was fired.
"During arbitration, [a boss] claimed I had had five meetings throughout my career due to complaints. That never happened! I've never had any complaints!" Johanne said emphatically.
In the weeks following her termination, she claims that her union actually adopted the company's view about her being "a problem employee." She also blames the union for botching the arbitration by failing to call any witnesses who could have spoken in her defence, and for not submitting the video of the incident as evidence.
Mistakes or deliberate actions? If Sproule prefers giving the benefit of the doubt to her union, Johanne's answer is unequivocal: "Unifor is in Air Canada's pocket. They are in collusion."
"We are most certainly not conniving with Air Canada," said Lapointe, stressing that Unifor aims to work for its members' interests. "We are familiar with Air Canada's arrogance and we know what lack of justice often pervades that company."
KS, represented by IAMAW, shares Johanne's opinion of her own union's efforts.
"I spoke to my union several times. They answered that nothing could be done because the union didn't deal with harassment," she said. "My union local was, in my opinion, as corrupt as Air Canada."
Fred Hospes, president of IAMAW District 140, countered to HuffPost that the union does, in fact, deal with cases of harassment.
"The IAMAW takes harassment seriously and supports its members in obtaining medical benefits it has negotiated on their behalf," he wrote in an email.
He confirmed that at least one grievance related to harassment of CL2 employees at Toronto Pearson airport had been filed, but declined to give any further details.
Why was I fired when I was the victim? KS
Sproule and KS both say that their problems could have been avoided if the company had taken their harassment complaints seriously.
"When Air Canada received the results of Keshill Consulting's independent investigation, on July 26, 2012, they could have said to me, 'Sue, we're sorry. We made a mistake, we trusted the wrong people.' I would have gone back to work the next week and it would have been over," said Sproule.
"All [Air Canada] needed to do was identify those responsible for harassing me. They could have installed a camera and identified the people making the graffiti," said KS. "Why was I fired when I was the victim?"
Earlier on HuffPost: