Clawback continues as Winnipeg health authority sues former workers, retiree it overpaid

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is fighting a retiree over $3,500 it allegedly paid her in error as the organization tries to recoup $1.2 million in overpayments to employees in recent years.

WRHA seeks judicial review in hopes of clawing back $3.5K from former worker, sues 5 others

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is waiting on a judge's decision after taking an overpayment issue involving a retiree before the courts. (CBC)

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is fighting a retiree over $3,500 it allegedly paid her in error as the organization tries to recoup $1.2 million in overpayments to employees in recent years.

The WRHA's attempts to recoup overpayments landed in court Tuesday as its lawyer, Keith LaBossiere, argued the now retired worker should be forced to pay back the money, contrary to what an arbitrator found in February.

The judge reserved her decision.

The overpayment issues have affected hundreds of employees in the past six years, and the WRHA pressed forward with at least a handful of lawsuits it filed against former non-unionized employees last week in hopes of clawing back overpayments of as little as $140 and as much as $660.

In January 2017, the health authority said clerical errors led to hundreds of overpayments totalling $1.2 million between 2012 and 2015, and asked employees to return the money.

The WRHA had managed to recover half of that money as of last November, but said it was still waiting on more than 400 employees to return the remaining $562,000 they were allegedly overpaid.

One such employee, who retired on July 1, 2015, was notified in November of that year that she was accidentally paid about $3,500 while she was still a member of the workforce. 

Suing workers

Hers is one of at least six current cases before the courts right now. Last week, the WRHA sued five former employees it says they were overpaid.

They were overpaid due to "timekeeping" and "keying" errors, as well as "late paperwork sent to [human resources]" upon termination of employment, according to documents filed in small claims court.

The retiree has never conceded she was overpaid, but the union which previously represented her, WAPSO — the Winnipeg Association of Public Service Officers — did just that when the matter went before an arbitrator in February.

The WRHA filed a grievance under the workforce collective bargaining agreement after the woman failed to give back the money.

In a decision on Feb. 15, 2018, arbitrator Patrick Riley ultimately found the collective bargaining agreement did not extend to retirees — despite the fact that the woman was overpaid while still an employee — and that he therefore didn't have powers as an arbitrator to compel her to pay the WRHA back.

'Red herring'

On Tuesday, during the judicial review, LaBossiere argued the "status of the employee is a red herring" that wrongly convinced Riley in his decision.

"He ought not have ventured down that road but he did," LaBossiere said in court.

He said Riley's conclusion was unreasonable, that he did have jurisdiction to decide whether repayment should be made, and that the matter was indeed something that should be resolved through arbitration and not before the courts.

Lawyer Alfred Thiessen, who represents the WAPSO, stood by Riley's decision. He said Riley couldn't insert language on retirement into his consideration since it doesn't currently exist in the collective bargaining agreement.

"His mandate was not to write law," Thiessen said.

He added that although the subject of overpayment is one that could typically be addressed by an arbitrator, the woman's retirement and the fact the WRHA discovered the overpayment after she was retired mean she is now exempt from the collective agreement.

Not about 'repayment of the amount'

A WRHA spokesperson said Tuesday the issue "was not about repayment of the amount."

"This was essentially about whether workplace disputes should be dealt with under a collective agreement or in the courts," the statement reads.

"We have pursued this judicial review to ensure clarification as to who is considered an employee under the Labour Relations Act, so that we can effectively engage in and utilize the processes negotiated in our collective agreements, which would avoid accessing the courts for these types of issues.

"This decision will assist us in determining the specific language to consider at the next round of bargaining with unions representing employees in the health system." 

One union slammed the WRHA last year when the organization began skimming pay from wages of affected employees.

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals, which represents about 1,300 WRHA workers, claimed the health authority violated the collective bargaining agreement in making the unauthorized deductions. An arbitrator agreed in August of last year and ordered the WRHA to stop the deductions.

The decision in the jurisdictional review in the case of the retiree is expected at a later date.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the WRHA sued five former and current employees it says they were overpaid. In fact, the health authority has only sued former workers.
    Sep 20, 2018 3:15 PM CT

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

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Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.