The City of Vernon has been ordered to reinstate two employees who were fired in March 2018 for engaging in sexual activity in the workplace while on duty.
This order has been made by a majority of the arbitration board that had been convened to hear a grievance brought forward by the B.C. International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Both individuals worked in the City’s Fire Service prior to having been terminated last March. One of them, a fire captain at the time of his termination, had previously served a recent three-day suspension for engaging in bullying and harassment of a fellow firefighter.
“Our emergency personnel have a duty to serve our taxpayers and respond with all due diligence, not to be distracted from their duties by engaging in sexual relations in the Fire Hall when on shift. Lives depend on rapid response. Engaging in sexual activity rather than managing the Platoon is absolutely unacceptable,” said Will Pearce, Chief Administrative Officer for the City.
“I am most disappointed in the majority decision. It sends entirely the wrong message to Fire personnel across the country and to staff of the City of Vernon. It is not now and will never be acceptable or ethical for a direct supervisor to engage in a sexual relationship with junior and subordinate staff. The City of Vernon has an employee code of ethics, known by both employees, that requires staff to maintain ‘the highest ideals of honor and integrity in public and business relationships’ and not to act ‘in any way that would detract from the image of integrity or professionalism of the City of Vernon.’
“I extend my apologies to the citizens of Vernon for the behavior of these two people. Our staff, with few exceptions, are dedicated to high standards of service, ethics, integrity and honesty. These two individuals do not reflect the professionalism of the proud public servants who work for the City.”
In the ruling, the panel suggested that termination was excessive and instead proposed a four-month suspension as well as a temporary demotion for the captain.
“A picture might be worth a thousand words, but silent video footage is only part of the story. For some unexplained reason, the employer did not take time to become fully informed and assess the situation before deciding the appropriate response. Perhaps the employer did not want to hear what they might say and risk changing the narrative it had constructed based on 88 seconds of video footage and an investigation the employer now acknowledges had ‘shortcomings,’” the ruling reads.
“In the context of an employment relationship, employer discipline is not to punish. It is to correct unwanted behaviour and misconduct. Corrective discipline is imposed with progressively more severe penalties for repeat and more serious misconduct because it is unjust to dismiss an employee for misconduct without first attempting to correct the behaviour.”
However, the decision of the Arbitration Panel was not unanimous.
John McKearney, former Fire Chief (retired) of the Vancouver Fire Department, wrote: “In 2018, a fire captain involved in a sexual encounter with a female subordinate, in the fire hall, in a reckless open manner, on a Sunday morning, must generally be considered cause for termination. The conduct was antithetical to [his] responsibility as Captain and leader of the shift and has created a poison work environment for other females in the hall (and for males). His actions were a gross violation of his duty to create a welcoming work environment for all, and especially for women. [This individual] does not have a clean disciplinary record to perhaps mitigate towards reinstatement. His recent disciplinary record is significant.”
Pearce said he is of the opinion the arbitration board erred in arriving at its decision and as such the City is exploring a range of options.