CHAUDHRI: No excuse for Ontario Public Service’s racism problem

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In the last two weeks, the Ontario Public Service has been cast as a racist organization following the release of a 175-page third-party report completed by INDsight Consulting earlier this year.

The report found employees “indicated a toxic culture of fear, harassment, discrimination, and reprisal; and “many employees in discussion groups felt that the OPS was a fundamentally racist organization.”

While one would expect a deluge of opposition to the findings of the report, the OPS has in fact adopted and accepted its findings. Secretary of the Cabinet, Steven Davidson wrote an email to all OPS employees with an apology, acknowledging there is work to be done.

In part, he wrote: “We apologize for the harm caused to Black employees by the prevalence and severity of anti-Black racism in the workplace.”

An apology in the midst of ongoing, unrelenting misconduct is scarier than no apology at all. It is political at its core; well-intentioned or not.

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With its wealth of resources, including an ample HR department in every ministry, and a robust union presence, there is no excuse for the insidious nature of racism to persist at the OPS.

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Since the release of the report, the CBC featured several black OPS employees sharing their own stories of discrimination.

One employee said their white supervisor “makes demeaning comments on their nice car and clothes and has said they’re not a “typical” Black person.” Another black employee, Glendon Thomas, raised discrimination concerns to his managers, the union and then filed an application to the human rights tribunal. He told the CBC he was labelled a troublemaker and was singled out by senior managers.

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Thomas’ story belies the apparent protections afforded to him as an employee of the government backed by one of the country’s most powerful unions, OPSEU. What has OPSEU done to protect employees from discrimination at the OPS?

If an employee, like Glendon Thomas, raises discrimination concerns to his union representative, HR should have been involved immediately to resolve the issue. A grievance could have been filed and sent to arbitration. Wrongdoers would and should have been identified, disciplined or removed.

Shouldering none of the responsibility, in response to the report OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo Almeida said, “The government, as an employer, has not taken complaints about workplace discrimination and harassment seriously in the past.”

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While the broad apology to OPS employees has drawbacks, including the risk that the legal system will now be overwhelmed with some complaints that do not meet the threshold of discrimination, it is unequivocal that a union’s primary responsibility is to protect the rights and interests of its membership. If racism is systemic within the OPS, the duty to protect employees falls at the feet of OPSEU too.

A union is meant to be the moral compass of an employer, the check and balance, the knight on guard. Unfortunately, this knight has yet to fall on its sword.

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On to your questions from this week:

Q. I have worked as a legal assistant since 1992. I now work in a law firm for just over 9 years. When I started, I worked for one lawyer only. Over the 9 years, in total I received a raise of $5,000. I worked from home remotely from March to July 2020, basically 7 days a week as I had to cover for the other two legal assistants. I am still the only assistant, but now working for 4 lawyers. The law firm hired a new “office manager” who unilaterally books training sessions for a new accounting program without taking into consideration how much more work is put on me. I am in everyday at 7, I don’t take a lunch and leave anywhere between 2 and 3. She will book the training appointments for 2:30 which takes 1-1.5 hours. She says I have to do it. I guess my question is I know I am underpaid, and I didn’t mind because I loved working for my original lawyer, but do I have a right to request a substantial raise because of the above?

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A. You always have the right to request a raise. You do not however have a legal entitlement to one. If you are working more than usual make sure you document and submit your overtime hours each week to get paid for the extra work you are doing. It’s the law and it could be a significant amount of money.

Q. I have been working for my company for a few years as a subcontractor. My employer just gave me a contract offering me a salary but that my “start date” will be from the date I accept the “offer.” I don’t really get how my start date changes even though I have been working for the company for a few years. Can you help?

A. It seems like your employer could be moving away from a contractor relationship (i.e. where your income is not taxed at the source, you submit invoices etc.) to an employment relationship. As part of the new contract your employer may be seeking to limit the length of your working relationship, confirming your employment is starting now instead of a few years ago, which could limit your legal entitlements if terminated. Get some advice before signing anything.

Have a workplace question? Maybe I can help! Email me at schaudhri@lscslaw.com and your question may be featured in a future article.

The material provided in this article is for general information only and not legal advice.

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