Homeless drop-in centre's firing of intervention workers was illegal, tribunal rules

A tribunal arbitrator has found the workers whose posts were abolished should be rehired and paid the salaries they lost.

Tribunal arbitrator rules workers must get their jobs back and be paid back wages

Accueil Bonneau opened an annex to its drop-in day centre in Montreal's Old Port in November to have more space for clients to physically distance. (CBC)

A Quebec Labour Ministry arbitrator has ruled that the dismissal of intervention workers at the Accueil Bonneau homeless drop-in centre in Old Montreal was illegal, and has ordered the 11 workers be re-hired and paid the salaries they lost. 

The decision by the Tribunal Administratif du Travail, the ministry's tribunal, was published over the weekend, three months after the centre made the abrupt decision to abolish intervention worker positions. 

The firings were met with swift criticism from clients and advocates for people who are homeless, who feared other organizations in the city would follow suit. 

Around the time Bonneau cut the positions, it hired more security guards to patrol the warming centre it opened in the Old Port of Montreal, where it moved most of its services during the pandemic.

Though the centre argued the security agents were only hired to ensure public health measures were respected, a client CBC spoke to said the presence of the agents made many feel unsafe. 

"I've never been to jail. I've never even been arrested. I don't feel like I need to be treated like that," said the client whom CBC agreed not to identify because their family doesn't know about their living situation. 

Unclear if and when workers will recover their duties at centre

The labour arbitrator, Denis Nadeau, found in his decision that Accueil Bonneau had failed to consult the union representing workers before abolishing their positions, as outlined in the collective agreement. 

Bonneau argued the climate was already so tense because of contract negotiations that the union would have said no anyway. 

Nadeau wrote in the decision that it was not a judgment on the firings themselves, but on the fact that Accueil Bonneau had failed to consult the union before cutting the positions.

"It's a procedural issue," Bonneau's director general, Fiona Crossling, told CBC on the phone. "We'll certainly be meeting with the union and making sure that we correct that part of the procedure."

Crossling would not say if and when the intervention workers would be returning to their original duties on the floor at the centre.

Jeff Begley, the head of the federation of health and social services (FSSS-CSN) representing the workers, says the arbitrator's decision didn't surprise him. 

"It seemed to us that the collective bargaining agreement was very clear," he said. "That the union had a right to say, 'Give us some time to reflect; maybe we can find alternatives.'" 

Begley says the tension was made worse by the centre's decision not to consult the union. 

"If the objective is to reduce tension, then the best way of doing that is sitting down and discussing."

Begley says the union's hope is that the climate improves if the workers recover their jobs.