British Columbia

Alcohol addiction claimed as basis for discrimination in B.C. human rights case

A B.C. man has filed a human rights complaint claiming his termination by lumber giant Interfor amounts to discrimination because of an alcohol addiction.

Lumber producer says employee was terminated for safety reasons as opposed to chronic alcoholism

A B.C. man claims his employer discriminated against him because of a physical disability: alcohol addiction. (Makia Minich/Flickr cc)

A B.C. man has filed a human rights complaint against lumber giant Interfor for firing him when he showed up at work with booze in his system after promising to get sober.

In the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal complaint, Robert McDonald claims his treatment amounts to discrimination on the basis of a physical disability: alcohol addiction.

'Stereotype and prejudicial attitudes'

Interfor filed an application to dismiss the complaint ahead of the hearing, but in a decision released last week, tribunal member Catherine McCreary refused.

"Mr. McDonald submits that Interfor's treatment of him relied entirely on stereotype and prejudicial attitudes," McCreary wrote.

"He points to being questioned under circumstances that caused him to feel intimidated and afraid. Mr. McDonald claims that Interfor failed to make meaningful inquiries to determine the nature of his addiction and possible accomodations."

According to the decision, the complaint is the culmination of a situation which began with McDonald's suspension from his job as a kiln operator in 2010 for "smelling of alcohol and not being forthright about having an addiction to alcohol."

Alcohol and drug addictions are considered disabilities under the human rights code. But Interfor claims safety was at issue in this case.

With the help of his union, he negotiated a return-to-work agreement requiring him to attend treatment and counseling.

But in February 2015, McDonald was called into his supervisor's office about seven hours after the start of a 5 a.m. shift.

The decision says he was given a breathalyzer which revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.015 per cent.

"Mr. McDonald said that he had consumed alcohol the previous evening," the decision says.

A urine sample came up negative for drug testing.

Interfor initially suspended McDonald, but terminated his employment several days later after a regional manager expressed the opinion that McDonald "had not learned what he needed to during his treatment in 2010."

The union filed a grievance, which they withdrew after McDonald decided he would rather pursue a human rights complaint.

'He represented a danger'

According to the decision, Interfor claims McDonald was dismissed because of safety concerns, not because of a disability.

"Interfor says that, given the safety sensitive nature of the workplace, it cannot have employees reporting to work in such a state and, in order to maintain safety in the workplace, must guard against and discipline employees who do," the decision says.

"In terminating Mr. McDonald's employment, Interfor says that it did so because he represented a danger to the health and safety of himself and his co-workers."

Interfor says that even if McDonald was perceived to be addicted to alcohol, he wouldn't be immunized from "breaching the relationship of trust, or coming to work under the influence of alcohol."

Drug and alcohol addictions are considered disabilities under the B.C. Human Rights Code.

But according to the B.C. Human Rights Coalition, management has the right and responsibility to manage impairment at work.

Denial of addiction and relapses are considered part of the illness, but legal questions arise over how much time employers have to spend helping to rehabilitate employees.

Interfor claims that continuing to employ McDonald would give rise to an undue hardship in terms of the risk to his fellow employees.

But McCreary ruled the company has yet to show whether he might have been placed in another position.

A hearing will be set for the complaint, but in the meantime the tribunal has recommended both parties consider mediation instead.