'I expect there will be more claims': more lawsuits could follow after worker sues Winnipeg health authority

Genevieve Sahulka was laid off on June 6 from her job as a Quality & Innovation manager at Grace Hospital, one of 197 management positions within Manitoba’s health authorities and health agencies slashed after the Pallister government mandated a 15 per cent cut to all management positions.

A laid-off manager from Grace Hospital is suing the WRHA for wrongful dismissal

A former manager at Grace Hospital is suing the WRHA for wrongful termination. (Claude Vickery/CBC)

A Winnipeg Regional Health Authority manager given the pink slip during its massive round of layoffs in June is now suing the authority for wrongful dismissal.

Genevieve Sahulka was laid off on June 6 from her job as a quality and innovation manager at Grace Hospital, one of 197 management positions within Manitoba's five health authorities and three health agencies slashed after the Pallister government mandated a 15 per cent cut to all management positions.

The lawyer representing Sahulka said the suit, filed on July 5 in the Court of the Queen's Bench, centres around the amount of notice or payment in lieu of notice given before Sahulka was terminated.

"The point of providing notice, or payment in lieu of notice, is you provide someone income while they look to obtain similar employment," Harvey Slobodzian told CBC News.

Sahulka's contract called for a severance payment if she was terminated. Her lawyer said it clearly "wasn't acceptable" to his client. 

"And obviously they terminated on this day (June 6) so it wasn't like, 'Oh by the way, we are going to give you six months notice,'" Slobodzian told CBC News.

According to the statement of claim, Sahulka was making $97,000 a year. 

Sahulka is seeking an unspecified amount in damages to be determined at trial. She declined to comment about the suit, referring all questions to her lawyer.

'I expect there will be more claims'

With management jobs being cut across the public sector, including the government and Crown corporations, Sahulka's suit is likely the first of many the various agencies and Crown corporations will face, said Ken Dolinsky, a Winnipeg lawyer with over two decades of experience in employment law.

"I expect that there will be more claims. The more people that get laid off, the more people will claim," Dolinsky told CBC News.

"I suspect you will see many more of these things settle before you see court action." 

A statement of defence has yet to be filed and in a prepared statement the WRHA declined to comment on the specifics of Sahulka's case.

However, a spokesperson for the authority added that in fulfilling the province's mandated management cuts, they ensured all employees were treated "fairly, respectfully in accordance with provincial labour standards and regulations."

"Still, employees have the option to contest the circumstances of the position deletion and are not under any obligation to accept the severance and support package offered," said the spokesperson in the statement.

CBC News reported last month the WRHA expected to pay out $5.36 million in severance packages in the aftermath of the cuts, but expected to save $10 million by slashing 132 positions.

Provincial labour standards dictate a person must be given at least one week notice after 30 days of employment. After 10 years of employment, the employer must give a minimum of eight weeks notice. Alternatively, it can give payment in lieu of the notice.

Lawsuit comes with risk: lawyer

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen was unavailable for an interview, but a spokesperson with Manitoba Health said in a prepared statement the staff reductions were necessary due to excessive management growth under the former NDP government.

"Reversing this trend, responsibly through attrition and retirements wherever possible, helps to streamline top heavy and overlapping administrative structures that hinder effective decision-making and complicate the free flow of ideas from front-line workers," the statement reads.

Dolinsky said the laid-off workers will most likely be motivated to sue if they feel they deserve more compensation (or notice) than the severance offered or wish to include the value of a lost pension and benefits. However, it comes with a risk.

It can take a year for a trial date and legal fees can eat up a large chunk of the settlement, he noted.

"It is no mean feat to take on a monolithic bureaucracy like that [the WRHA]," he said. "For the employer, it is business, for the plaintiff it is their life."

He said it is very unlikely any of the suits will end up in court, because in most cases the employer will settle.

"The lion's share of these cases are settled confidentially, with strings on them for people not to say what they got," he said.