Accommodation is a Two-way Street

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[author: Kristin Taylor]

What is an employer to do with an employee who demands changes to a job, without ever having done the job? A recent arbitration decision, Child Development Institute and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, local 2132 (June 21, 2012), unrep. (Charney), considered this issue.

The grievor succeeded in her application for a full-time family violence clinician position. Prior to being awarding the job, the grievor had worked for the employer in a part-time capacity. She expressed great enthusiasm and no reservations when she accepted the job. Almost immediately thereafter though, she requested changes to the job’s design. These changes initially were expressed as a preference and were not supported by medical documentation. The grievor seemed to think her changes would be a better way to run the program. The employer disagreed.

Shortly before commencing the job, the grievor raised a concern as to trauma and then provided documentation that she was suffering from serious depression. Her psychiatrist recommended that the employer implement all of the job design changes identified by the grievor.

Although the arbitrator queried, “why one would apply for a job and then without ever trying to do it, decide that it needs to be accommodated”, given the psychiatric evidence that doing the work, as constituted, would either continue or worsen the grievor’s depression, the arbitrator found that she required accommodation. After a few months – which the arbitrator excused as a reasonable period of time – the employer offered the grievor her choice of two possible reintegration plans. The grievor refused both on the basis they did not exactly fit with the accommodation she required. The employer’s third offer of accommodation also was refused.

The arbitrator was critical of the grievor’s intransigence finding that she had a duty to explore the possibilities of the accommodation offered by the employer. According to the arbitrator, “What works and what doesn’t work is an inexact science and to be able to forecast that nothing will work except the exact accommodation that the grievor has sought is a difficult proposition …. It would be more understandable to me that if she attempted the work hardening process and then if it didn’t work she continued to be unable to function, that could be dealt with.”

Given the employer’s limited funding and the funding required to achieve the grievor’s preferred accommodation, the arbitrator found ”a classic example of undue hardship”. He also concluded that the employment relationship had completely broken down and it was inconceivable she could return to work. Accordingly, the arbitrator dismissed the grievance.

This decision is a good reminder that there, in fact, are limits to the duty to accommodate and that employees must work with their employers as part of the accommodation process, not simply make unreasonable demands.