by Michael V. Coyle, JD*
Every employee in Nova Scotia has a contract with their employer – whether they work full time, part time, seasonal or casual. The contract exists whether they have been working there 10 years or 10 minutes. In relatively rare cases the contract might be in writing, but in the vast majority of cases the contract of employment is unwritten. But it is still a contract in the eyes of the law.
The essence of the contract of employment is that the employee will faithfully carry out their assigned duties and the employer will pay the employee an agreed wage or salary and benefits. The contract continues until it is lawfully terminated by one party or the other.
In theory, an employer is free to terminate the contract at any time.
If the employee has breached the contract by failing to live up to his/her end of the bargain as a faithful employee that is called a “termination for just cause”. In plain language, the employee is “fired”. In that case, the employer owes the employee nothing except wages and benefits due to the date of firing.
But if the employer fires the employee without “just cause”, the employer must pay the employee an amount of money in lieu of the “reasonable notice” that they should have received from the employer. If the employer refuses to pay, the employee can sue the employer for wrongful dismissal. Generally, the employer’s financial position is not “just cause” for dismissal, nor is a decision by the employer to “restructure” or “down-size” their operation.
The determination of the amount that the employer must pay for wrongfully dismissing an employee is based on a variety of factors. These include the employee’s age, education, training and family circumstances, the time that it would likely take to find comparable employment in that business, trade or industry in that geographic area, the length of time the employee has worked for the employer and the kind of job or position they held with the employer. On the other hand, a unjustly dismissed employee has a legal obligation to look for work and take a comparable job if it is offered.
If the employer tries to avoid its obligations under the contract of employment by forcing the employee to quit, for example, by changing the employee’s fundamental terms of employment without their agreement, that might be a “constructive dismissal”. In that case, even though the employee quit, they can still sue the employer for wrongful dismissal.
Employers cannot discriminate against employees – before and after hiring – on any of the grounds set out in the Human Rights Act. They have a legal duty to accommodate employees who are sick or who have disabilities. Employees are forbidden from harassing other employees on any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Human Rights Act.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act prohibits “workplace violence”. That term now includes workplace harassment and is broader than the definition used under the Human Rights Act in that it can include meanness and nastiness from both supervisors and other employees.
Employers and employees must of course abide by the Labour Standards Code and, generally, employers have an obligation to continue additional benefits they have customarily provided to their employees beyond the Labour Standards Code. The Labour Standards Code provides that, once an employee has worked for an employer for 10 years, they can only be dismissed for “just cause”. A 10 year employee who has been fired without just cause can seek reinstatement to their former position, with back pay for lost wages, under the Labour Standards Code.
A “lay off” is a reduction in the workforce due to a shortage of work caused by the employer’s inability, in good faith, to secure orders or work or other circumstances (like fire, natural disaster, strikes or lockouts by suppliers or key customers, etc.) that are beyond the employer’s control. A “lay off” should not be confused with a “termination” or “dismissal”. Laid off employees are not “fired” and they have a contractual right to be recalled to work once the reason for the “lay off” has gone away. An employer who hires a new employee to replace one who has been “laid off” risks being sued for wrongful dismissal.
The law has changed in recent years concerning probationary employees. A judge of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia recently summed it up this way: “The era when an employer could arbitrarily terminate a probationary employee without obligation or explanation is past.” In most cases, probationary employees can now only be dismissed for documented “just cause”, like regular employees.
In a unionized workplace, the employer and the Union bargain for terms of employment which are set out in the Collective Agreement. Generally speaking, a unionized employee cannot sue the employer for breach of the Collective Agreement, but instead must go through the Union by way of the grievance procedure in the Collective Agreement to seek justice. Unions, in turn, owe the employees they represent a “duty of fair representation” under the Trade Union Act.
If you are an employer or an employee and an employment law issue arises you should consult with a knowledgeable employment lawyer before taking any actions. Employment law is a specialized field. Most employment law cases can be resolved out of court with the help of experienced legal counsel.
*Michael Coyle is a Chartered Professional in Human Resources and a retired employment and labour lawyer based in Kentville, Nova Scotia. Information expressed in this article is meant for general interest only and is not a substitute for professional advice about your own situation. Michael can be reached by email at michael@michaelcoyle,ca For more information and tips on employment and labour law issues, visit his website at www.michaelcoyle.ca
©Michael V. Coyle, 2012