SHANNON LEUNG USED TO HAVE THE LAW ON HER SIDE. Not so much anymore. Not since her boss decided to disobey the labour standards law guaranteeing her right to severance pay.
Shannon worked the front-desk at the Four Points by Sheraton Vancouver Airport hotel for the last seven years. The hotel recently fired her and 20 or 30 of her hotel workmates. The notice of termination said the hotel would not be paying the fired workers severance or termination pay—despite the fact the law requires it.
Hotel claims ‘unseen circumstances’
The hotel maintains they can disobey the law because of a serious decline in business due to the pandemic leading to what it calls “unforeseen circumstances beyond our control.”
Shannon, and at least some of the others who were fired, have filed complaints with the province’s Employment Standards Branch about the hotel’s refusal to pay severance. The branch has yet to be clear on whether or not it will accept the Sheraton interpretation of the law.
“It’s not fair for everyone who got terminated,” says Shannon. “We all need a job after this regardless of whether we’re part-time, in school. A job is a job, it’s still money going into our pockets.”
300,000 workers could lose out
If the hotel’s interpretation of the law is allowed to stand, more than 300,000 people laid off in B.C. during the pandemic, who have not yet returned to work, would be in danger of being denied severance payments if the layoffs become permanent.
Under B.C.’s Employment Standards Act, an employee who isn’t being recalled from a layoff is entitled to severance pay or working notice. The longer a person has been working for the employer, the more notice or pay they are entitled to, with a maximum of eight weeks for people who have worked eight years or more.
Michelle Travis, the research director for Unite Here Local 40, said the hotel is using COVID-19 as an excuse.
“I think it’s very clear they used the pandemic as an excuse to terminate Shanon Leung and her co-workers and to use the pandemic as a way to deny severance, and that’s a real problem,” she said.
She noted that Premier John Horgan has said he expects businesses will bring back their previous employees when they restart, although there is no legal requirement for them to do so unless they have a union contract with recall provisions.
Fired workers face double whammy
The B.C. Employment Standards Act says employees are entitled to severance if they’re fired without cause or laid off for more than 13 weeks. The government extended that period to 24 weeks due to the pandemic. That makes August 30 the day of reckoning for the Sheraton workers.
Employees would be twice penalized if the pandemic allows them to be fired without severance. The act doesn’t guarantee workers recall rights that would ensure they’d have the first crack at their former jobs if the company begins hiring again, so they would be denied both severance and the chance to return to work.
The government says it’s up to the Employment Standards Branch to decide on a case-by-case basis if employers can use COVID-19 to avoid paying severance and notes there are appeal options.
Cold comfort for Shannon and thousands of other workers like her who are out of work with no idea where their next dollar will come from.
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