A company that sparked protests over its use of foreign workers in building the new women’s hospital in Winnipeg has been ordered to reinstate two workers it fired last November and pay them the wages they would have earned had they not been dismissed.

CBC News has learned that the Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Division issued two separate improvement orders to Pagnotta Industries, finding the company improperly fired the two workers.

One of the workers, carpenter Chris Bernier, told the CBC News I-Team he feels vindicated by the findings of the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) investigation.

“Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself,” Bernier said. “Just do what you think is right.”

Edmonton-based Pagnotta Industries was the subject of a protest by construction workers’ unions last spring over the company’s move to employ some foreign workers on the hospital construction.

The unions argued that Pagnotta was trying to save money by paying lower wages to foreign workers — a claim the company refuted.

Bernier was fired by Pagnotta on Nov. 20, 2013, two days after a confrontation with other workers at the hospital construction site.

“It’s funny how you can be assaulted and fired. It doesn’t make sense to me,” Bernier said.

“It makes me think there's something else. I don’t get it,” he added. “Is the superintendent trying to protect these guys for another reason?”

'They were in our face'

The problem began on Nov. 18, 2013, when Bernier and a co-worker, Al Fox, were leaving the work site in Fox’s vehicle at the end of their shift.

The WSH investigation found that Fox had been in a disagreement with another worker earlier that day over the use of a tool storage box.

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Bernier said he and Fox became involved in a clash with the other worker’s crew as they were leaving.

“There were six guys attacking. They were in our face, picking fights,” Bernier said, adding that he didn’t hit anyone.

The WSH order said, “Fox sustained injuries to his face in the brief ensuing altercation when he managed to get out of his truck and punches were thrown.”

Pagnotta is appealing the WSH orders. A hearing before the Manitoba Labour Board is scheduled for April 4.

William Gardner, a lawyer for Pagnotta, told CBC News the company won’t discuss the matter before the appeal is heard, other than to say it finds the orders are inappropriate.

The company investigated the incident the day after it happened and took statements from numerous workers, but WSH found those statements were often contradictory about whether punches were thrown and by whom.

Workplace Safety and Health found the company did not take statements from Bernier or Fox.

“I've never been involved in any violence at work, but I've been at job sites where violence has been a problem and there's zero tolerance. It's zero tolerance,” Bernier said.  “You're gone.”

Other workers received warnings

In its investigation, Workplace Safety and Health noted that while Fox and Bernier were fired, other workers involved in the incidents received verbal or written warnings.

Two days after the fight, Bernier found himself working on the top level of the building, wearing fall protective equipment for safety.

Women's hospital construction site

Bernier and a co-worker, Al Fox, were fired by Pagnotta days after a confrontation with other workers at the hospital construction site on Elgin Avenue. (CBC)

The WSH order stated, “About a half hour into his shift, Bernier noticed that his entire crew and supervisor had all left the top level of the building, and Bernier was the lone member of his crew remaining on that level. He noticed that the only other workers remaining on that level were the crew of workers that were involved in the altercation.”

The order said, “Bernier became highly uncomfortable and decided to leave the top level and go to the ground level and report his concerns to a supervisor.”

It added, “He specifically stated he was fearful he might have his safety line cut and get pushed over the edge of the roof and he was raising his Right to Refuse in accordance with the Act and Regulations."

Bernier said, “It was like a bunch of thugs picking on people and I said, ‘You haven't provided me with a safe, harassment-free place to work today,’ so I refused unsafe work.”

After reporting his concerns, Bernier left work.

He later got a phone call at home advising him that “his employment had been terminated under the company’s policy of zero tolerance for violence in the workplace,” according to the WSH order.

However, the WSH investigator found there was no evidence Bernier exhibited violent behaviour, and it was unclear why he was told his employment was terminated under the company’s policy of zero tolerance for violence in the workplace.

The order stated that Pagnotta’s superintendent advised Workplace Safety and Health officials on several occasions that Bernier’s employment was terminated "for raising his right to refuse."

“I got fired for refusing unsafe work,” Bernier said.

“No one should be subjected to that kind of behaviour any time at any workplace.  I don't believe that it was right. I don't think anyone should have to take that,” he said.

Company has different version

A copy of a letter provided to Bernier by Pagnotta’s lawyer, discussing the reasons for the appeal, gives a very different account of events.

The letter stated that Bernier was terminated for committing acts of violence in the workplace. It said “the Improvement Order, if implemented, actually would create a hazard in the workplace” by returning Bernier to work.

The letter said the Pagnotta supervisor denies saying that Bernier was terminated because he had exercised his "right to refuse" unsafe work.

The letter also says the company’s investigation found that the two employees who were fired Bernier and Fox — were most at fault during the confrontation, but the other workers received disciplinary warnings.

For the carpenters' union, which was asked to have representatives in a meeting with Pagnotta concerning the case, the difference in discipline is a problem.

“If all the parties involved had been either laid off or fired for the violence policy that they have, that would be one thing. But the fact that Mr. Bernier and Mr. Fox got singled out and let go, I think creates problems,” said John Reczek, regional manager of the Prairie Arctic Regional Council of Carpenters.

Reczek called the WSH orders fair and even-handed, while acknowledging they are under appeal by the company.

Reczek defended Bernier’s exercising the right to refuse unsafe work.

“If a worker feels unsafe, they should be able to report it and things should be remedied,” Reczek said. “He should be able to go to work and not in fear of his life or his livelihood.”

In the case of Fox, his improvement order indicated he was informed that his employment had been terminated under the company’s policy of zero tolerance for violence in the workplace. 

Fox told CBC News what’s baffling and troubling to him is that he and Bernier were treated differently from other workers involved in the Nov. 18 conflict who did not lose their jobs.

“The guy I had words with hit me with his helmet, smacked me in the side of the head,” Fox said.

Meanwhile, Bernier’s sense of vindication is tempered somewhat by the fact that while the appeal is waiting to be heard, Pagnotta has not paid him and Fox the wages that Workplace Safety and Health had ordered to be paid since they were fired.

“I’ll feel more vindicated when they pay me because they owe me a lot of money now. It’s since November  so they owe me lots. Thirty bucks an hour,” Bernier said.

Both Bernier and Fox have since started new jobs with other employers.