Owner with a site access drug testing policy not a co-employer

On January 11th, the Alberta Court of Appeal issued a significant site access drug testing decision in which it held the owner of a construction site did not co-employ a subcontractor’s employee for the purpose of Alberta human rights legislation.

The employee worked for a subcontractor on a construction site owned by Syncrude. Syncrude required all contractors’ employees to have a drug test as a condition of site access. The employee failed, filed a human rights complaint and succeeded in arguing that Syncrude was a co-employer before a human rights panel. The Panel chair stated, “It would be an organization façade to think that a company could circumvent human rights legislation by inserting a contractor between the company and the workers it requires to build its project.”

The Court of Appeal held that co-employment is possible under the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act and articulated factors for assessing whether co-employment exists, but held that the Panel erred in finding Syncrude was a co-employer. It appears that Syncrude’s relationship with its general contractor and the various subcontractors on its site was nothing out of the ordinary. The Court commented:

It is Lockerbie & Hole [the complainant’s “true” employer] that must ensure that Mr. Luka’s rights under the Act are respected, and that any discrimination demonstrated by Mr. Luka is either a bona fide occupational requirement under ss. 7(3), or “reasonable and justifiable in the circumstances” under s. 11. Any duty to accommodate a disability that arises must be met by Lockerbie & Hole. Mr. Luka is not denied rights under the Act, but the burden of protecting them falls on Lockerbie & Hole…

If Mr. Luka worked for one of Lockerbie & Hole’s subcontractors, he presumably would have five employers: the subcontractor, Lockerbie & Hole, Marsulex, Kellogg Brown and Root, and Syncrude. If he was further down the contractual chain, he might have even more employers. This is not a result the Legislature should be taken to have intended by the use of the word “employer”.

This is an important site access drug testing decision. Furthermore, the Court’s reasoning on the meaning of “employer”  and the parameters for co-employment under human rights legislation are of general importance with implications outside of Alberta.

Lockerbie & Hole Industrial Inc. v. Alberta (Human Rights and Citizenship Commission, Director), 2011 ABCA 3 (CanLII).

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