As the gig economy rises, work for more than one employer is becoming more common, and work across multiple employers has been common in the health care sector for some time. What, then, is an employer to do if its employee has taken sick leave but may be working for their other employer? Can the employer simply ask the other employer if the employee is at work?
There are some discipline cases in which unions have not challenged such questioning and others in which employers have asked for employee consent to make the inquiry. Last July, Arbitrator Brian Sheehan of Ontario entertained and dismissed what I believe to be the first privacy breach allegation on point, though he did so in quite a qualified manner.
The employer’s inquiry was apparently based on a mere suspicion. Mr. Sheehan explained, “For Ms. Valentin, the grievor’s relatively significant level of absenteeism, in addition to Ms. Valentin’s perception that there was a pattern of the grievor being absent from work on days before or after her scheduled days off was suspicious.”
To aggravate the situation, when the employer called the other workplace it received the information it was seeking plus some editorial – that the grievor’s “attitude stinks.”
Mr. Sheehan nonetheless declined to find a privacy breach. He said:
As to the Union’s privacy argument, factually, I do not find that claim particularly compelling. Based on the Employer’s understanding of the facts as of September 2014, it had, in my view, a reasonable basis to investigate the grievor’s work history at Villa Leonardo. The Union’s primary complaint was that the Employer should have initially sought to obtain the information from the grievor. On this point, while as previously noted the grievor was fairly forthcoming with respect to her work history at Villa Leonardo, she was in fact mistaken as to her work history in relation to some of the days in question. At the same time, the Employer arguably should have followed the approach in the Province of Alberta, supra, case and sought the grievor’s consent to obtain the relevant documentation from Villa Leonardo.
At the end the day, however, the extent of the nature of the invasion of the grievor’s privacy relates to the Employer asking a third party the work history pertaining to the grievor. Seeking such information is definitively on the lower end of the spectrum of the privacy interests of an individual that warrant protection, and that interest is far removed from the surreptitious electronic surveillance that was in dispute in the cited Domain Forest Products, supra, and Ebco Metal Finishing Ltd., supra, cases. In this regard, any breach of the grievor’s privacy interest was, in my view, de minimis in nature; such that, I am not inclined to issue any sort of declaration or sanction.
This is best understood as a discouragement to employers, without an actual finding based on an application of the de minimis non curat lex principle: the law will not concern itself with trifles.
No arbitrator is bound to follow another arbitrator, but employers can take some comfort in this award. If they have a reason not to ask for consent (and are prepared to articulate it if challenged) they may decide to unilaterally seek information from another employer about whether an employee was or was not at work during a period of time. The risk of liability is low.