Under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, 2000 (the “Act”), an employer cannot terminate or otherwise punish an employee who asserts his or her rights under the Act. This is known as “reprisal” by the employer and, generally, will cause the employer to be punished itself by the Ontario Ministry of Labour and, possibly, the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
Zongping (Peter) Luo v. Economical Mutual Insurance Company, 2015 CanLII 79023 (ON LRB)
Mr. Luo was terminated by his insurance company employer about one month after informing them that he “might get legal help” regarding a dispute in the workplace.
He made a complaint to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, including alleging reprisal against Economical. The case was escalated to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (the “OLRB”), which decided that Economical did not engage in reprisal in this particular case.
Reportedly Mr. Luo did not specifically mention the Act when he asserted that he “might get legal help” – a factor. The OLRB concluded this statement by Mr. Luo could conceivably encompass a fairly broad range of potential actions, not only limited to those available to him under the Act.
Mr. Luo also admitted in the hearing that he was unaware of the Act when he made his statement – that did not help his case, either. Not long after he was terminated, Mr. Luo also sent an e-mail to the employer referring to wrongful termination and discrimination, but nothing about reprisal.
Ultimately, the OLRB held:
“There are no ‘magic words’ required for an employee to invoke the protection of s. 74 of the Act [the reprisal provision of the Employment Standards Act] so it is not necessary for an employee to refer specifically to the Act . . . However, where the background facts do not appear to raise issues of the enforcement of the Act and the employee makes only a generalized threat to seek legal assistance – as in this case – the protection of s. 74 of the Act cannot be engaged.”
Therefore, according to this case, making generalized assertions or threats to your employer, including that you may speak to a lawyer, may not support a claim of retaliation against your employer, if you believe you were punished for doing so. You need to be specific, ostensibly. Specifically make a request for your employer to comply with the Act or the other health and safety legislation that applies to your workplace, such as Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (which also addresses harassment in the workplace). Effectively, you will need to seek to exercise your rights very specifically under the Act or other legislation, or you will not likely succeed in a complaint of reprisal against your employer.
In addition to a reprisal claim, an employee may still have a claim for wrongful termination and other damages that may be available, depending on the circumstances.