P.E.I. widow awarded benefits after husband's death linked to workplace bullying
Group home denies any bullying, appeals Workers Compensation Board decision
- The P.E.I. Workers' Compensation Act Tribunal has since rejected the finding that linked Eric Donovan's death with workplace bullying. Click here to read an update on this story published on Dec. 2, 2019.
A Prince Edward Island widow has been awarded benefits after her husband's death was linked to workplace bullying and harassment.
"I said that from the get-go," said Lisa Donovan. "I believe that Eric's workplace bullying and harassment was the reason that my husband had his heart attack."
Donovan got the ruling from the Workers Compensation Board of P.E.I (WCB) in December 2016, after three years of complex legal proceedings to decide whether the WCB or the P.E.I. Supreme Court should hear her claim, and then whether the bullying that was alleged could be considered a workplace accident.
Donovan's lawyer Jim Macnutt said, despite an extensive search, this was the first case in Canada he could find of any death being linked to workplace bullying or harassment.
"It took me on this twisted journey that took me three years to navigate, and it was difficult and it was expensive and it was heart-wrenching, and frustrating," said Donovan. "It was an uphill battle all the way."
The benefits awarded by the Workers Compensation Board to Lisa Donovan have not been made public.
They include funeral costs, a lump sum for death benefits and monthly payments to cover survivor benefits, based on a percentage of his pensionable salary.
Without this decision, Donovan would have been eligible only for a percentage of his workplace pension.
Surrounded by memories of her late husband and the life they shared together with their two children in her Hazelbrook, P.E.I., home, Donovan reflected on her loss, and the journey she's been on since he died.
"I thought I would be more, I don't know, relieved, proving it," she said. "It still doesn't bring Eric back, it doesn't change what happened, but it does give me some sort of closure I guess, some acknowledgement that this experience has happened to us."
Eric Donovan was 47 when he died after a cardiac arrest. He'd spent 17 years with Queens County Residential Services (QCRS), a not-for-profit organization that runs nine group homes and a number of programs in Charlottetown for about 130 intellectually challenged adults.
According to his widow, he loved his job and had "a special way" with clients, helping them feel more comfortable and more involved in the community.
Well-regarded by co-workers
In papers filed in the case with the WCB, several co-workers described him as the "go to" person, "conscientious and compassionate with the residents" as well as being "highly respected" and "helpful and generous to fellow workers."
In the last few years of his life, however, Lisa Donovan said she noticed her husband becoming increasingly anxious and stressed.
That, she alleged in submissions to the WCB, was because he was being bullied by his supervisor, Nadine Hendricken, and felt unsupported by his employer, QCRS.
In documents filed in the case by Lisa Donovan's lawyer, Hendricken's treatment of Eric Donovan was described as "demeaning, conflictual, rude and hostile personal comments, most of which were in the presence of co-workers and clients."
They'd never seen Eric look so stressed and so worn and so defeated.- Lisa Donovan
The situation came to a head, Lisa Donovan alleged, when her husband hurt his back on Sept. 30, 2013, while trying to contain an aggressive client.
According to allegations in documents submitted to WCB, his supervisor called him a "wimp" prior to the injury in front of co-workers.
Eric Donovan took medical leave after the injury.
Concern over return to work
But as his return to work approached, Lisa Donovan said her husband became more worried and anxious.
"I remember Thanksgiving that year and family being around and everybody saying the same thing. They'd never seen Eric look so stressed and so worn and so defeated at that point," said Lisa Donovan.
Eric Donovan started making notes after his injury, some of which were submitted with the WCB claim. In them he wrote on Oct. 22 that his relationship with his supervisor "was now so strained that I couldn't work for her."
He made note that his doctor suggested stress leave.
On Oct. 27 he wrote in his notes: "I'm very concerned about the safety of my health."
'You're not going back there'
On Oct. 29, despite concerns he might re-injure his back, Eric Donovan returned to work with reduced physical duties.
According to the claim, when he returned to work Hendricken "berated" him in front of co-workers for being "weak" because of his back injury and suggested he wasn't up to the job.
When he arrived home on Oct. 31, after his third day back, Lisa Donovan said her husband didn't look well.
In the sworn affidavit she submitted to the WCB, she said her husband told her he had heard Hendricken tell someone over the phone that she thought he was faking his back injury.
"He was just devastated, because Eric's integrity and professionalism, it just overwhelmed him, and that's when I said, 'This is it. You're not going back there'," said Lisa Donovan.
"We discussed it many times and I told him I was in full support of whatever he needed to do, to go on stress leave. The last words I said to my husband were, 'You're going on stress leave. You need to get away,' and I wish I'd have said them earlier."
Lisa Donovan was handing out Halloween treats that evening when the phone rang a short time later for her husband.
When she went to find him, he was on the floor, unresponsive.
Lisa Donovan administered CPR until paramedics arrived, however he was admitted to hospital on life-support and died just over a week later, on Nov. 11, 2013.
Lawyer Jim Macnutt told CBC when Lisa Donovan approached him for help in claiming death benefits, he didn't hesitate to take her case.
"My commitment to assisting her was nothing compared to a grieving widow with two very distraught children, having the gumption, having the courage, and continuing determination to see justice done for her and her children," said Macnutt,.
After the WCB said it didn't have jurisdiction to hear the claim, the case was heard in the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court of P.E.I. and then was sent back to the WCB to determine what should happen next.
Bullying considered workplace accident
The WCB arranged for an independent legal opinion to review the file.
A decision on May 31, 2016, found that workplace accident, as defined in the Workers Compensation Act, could include workplace bullying and harassment.
The WCB wrote in a letter to Macnutt in June 2016 that if Lisa Donovan could establish her husband died because of workplace bullying, she would be compensated.
Medical reports, co-worker affidavits
Macnutt collected Eric Donovan's medical records along with medical opinions that concluded Donovan didn't have a pre-existing heart condition, with the exception of an "innocent heart murmur" that wouldn't have caused his death.
In his medical report, Donovan's family doctor noted he had treated him for a number of concerns in the five years before his death.
They were prepared to stick their necks out.- Jim Macnutt, Lisa Donovan's lawyer
"Mr. Donovan had significant stress from his relationship with his supervisor at work … he often voiced how difficult the relationship was, the sense of being bullied and the resultant stress, anxiety and panic attacks," said Dr. George Carruthers.
Macnutt also submitted four sworn affidavits from Donovan's co-workers that said his supervisor, Hendricken, had a reputation as a bully in the workplace.
"They were prepared to stick their necks out by giving an affidavit, stating this, and it was at considerable risk to themselves, but they felt so strongly that Mr. Donovan did not need to die, should not have died, from this cause," said Macnutt.
QCRS denies allegations, appeals decision
When contacted by CBC, Queens County Residential Services executive director Bill Lawlor and Donovan's supervisor, program manager Nadine Hendricken, declined interview requests. They said they were not able to respond as it is a personnel matter.
Lawlor did say in an email to CBC that QCRS disagrees with the WCB decision and has filed an appeal.
The WCB said it cannot comment on any specific files for confidentiality reasons.
Lisa Donovan provided CBC with her copy of a six-page submission made by QCRS last fall to the WCB to consider in assessing her claim for benefits. Donovan said she believes it is the full submission made by QCRS. In it, Lawlor described Eric Donovan as "a leader within the organization" who "provided excellent care and services to clients."
In that submission, Lawlor said "We do not see an association between Mr. Donovan's tragic death and any injury at work …. The nature of the work can be stressful at times for all staff."
Lawlor also said Donovan "never came forward with any major complaints about his job either formally or informally" and never filed a grievance.
Lawlor also wrote that after Donovan's death he met with staff who had "expressed some frustration around management style and decision making."
He wrote that he encouraged staff to file a complaint under QCRS's harassment policy if they wished, but "no complaints were filed from staff nor were any grievances filed."
There are two sides to every story.- Bill Lawlor, Queens County Residential Services
In a follow-up email to CBC, Lawlor wrote QCRS has dedicated staff, some of whom have worked there for more than 30 years. "We have a very low turnover rate of our permanent staff and most people who have come to work here have made it their life career."
Lawlor also wrote in the email that QCRS works "to ensure any issues that staff identify are brought forward and are resolved," pointing to a harassment policy that covers workplace bullying and abuse, a clause in their collective agreement with the union "around the importance of reporting any harassment issues," a labour management committee where concerns are brought forward, and a health and safety committee which meets monthly where staff can address issues.
"Contrary to what you may have been told by a few, QCRS works hard in partnership with our staff to provide a healthy and safe workplace. I think our history of retention of experienced staff is one testament to that. As you know, there are two sides to every story."
In her submission to the WCB after Eric Donovan's death, his supervisor supplied a chronology of Donovan's last days at work.
She made note that Donovan was off work for a total of 144 hours from July 2012 to Aug 2013 due to a back injury he had sustained away from work, prior to the incident in September 2013.
Hendricken wrote that she talked to Donovan in early October 2013 about less physically demanding options when he returned to work, such as working at another group home, or working night shifts when clients were asleep. The home where he worked "has a high number of behavioural clients who demand more physical intervention," she wrote.
"I told him there was a lot of flexibility in most programs and that I wanted him to be happy where he would be at."
Hendricken wrote she had met with Donovan on Oct. 21. "He was in a good mood. He said his back was fantastic."
On Oct. 29, Donovan returned to work. Hendricken said in her submission that she told Donovan if he didn't feel well, he could go home and WCB would cover his time. She added that she had arranged for two other staff to help him on the day, however, Donovan "was rude to both of them."
On Oct. 30, Workers Compensation was arranging for an occupational therapist to assess Donovan. He was scheduled to teach a non-violent crisis intervention course to some staff. "At this time I was becoming concerned because Eric seemed resistant to any plan," wrote Hendricken.
In her submission to the WCB, Hendricken said when she last saw Eric Donovan the day of his cardiac arrest he appeared calm, but "he did not look good." She told him they would talk the next day, and said she wished him a good night.
WCB awards benefits
On Dec. 2, 2016, the WCB's manager of employer services/adjudication notified Lisa Donovan in writing:
"I have determined that there is a lack of medical evidence to support that Mr. Donovan's death was as a result of a pre-existing heart condition and have therefore concluded that the evidence on file weighs more heavily in favor of Mr. Donovan's sudden cardiac death being as a result of workplace bullying and harassment while employed with Queens County Residential Services Incorporated."
The Workers Compensation Board would not comment on the decision citing privacy reasons.
However, the board's director of workplace services, Kate Marshall, told CBC the Workers Compensation Act does not require the WCB to make decisions based on 100 per cent certainty.
She provided: "When making claim-related decisions we assess and weigh all relevant evidence and make decisions based on a balance of probabilities which is a degree of proof, more probable than not."
Lisa Donovan's lawyer said her struggles took years and took a personal toll on her.
"We had more downs, than we had ups, and some of those downs were really quite dreadful," said Macnutt. But he believes the rulings made by the courts and the WCB in this case, "are going to benefit a wide range of people over time in the future."
Provincial government role?
The P.E.I. government provided QCRS with $4.5 million for staffing and operational costs in 2016-17. In a statement to CBC, the department said QCRS offers a high quality service, but as an independent agency, it is "responsible for ensuring the safety of their clients and staff," adding that it's up to QCRS to deal with staff related issues through its human resources department and its union.
The statement adds that government regularly reviews its "options related to licensing NGOs offering residential care and researching what other provinces are doing."
The CBC also contacted Eric Donovan's union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, to find out whether it was aware of the bullying allegations at QCRS and if so, what the union was doing about those concerns.
The union declined comment.
'Not for nothing'
For Lisa Donovan the WCB decision is the acknowledgement she's been waiting three years to hear.
She's disappointed she hasn't heard anything from QCRS about whether it will take action to address the bullying issues raised in the affidavits her lawyer collected from Eric Donovan's co-workers.
"There's no acknowledgement from anyone of what experience we've gone through," said Donovan.
"I'm not saying it would make it all better, but it would certainly be a conversation that changes will be made, things will improve — that Eric's death was not for nothing."
Nadine Hendricken is still working with QCRS.
"Eric would've done the same thing," she said. "People's lives matter. Families matter. I think it's really important to get accountability and have some sort of acknowledgement from the agency that something will change, and that nothing like this ever happens to any other families … and it's important for my children and my family to know that you fight for what you believe in, and that's what I'm doing."
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