The Hudson's Bay Company sign in downtown Toronto, Wednesday July 16, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

‘It felt like they were forcing me to quit’: HBC worker files wrongful dismissal suit

Yvette Mitchell is seeking damages for lost benefits and pension entitlements and lost pay

On a spring day 21 years ago, Yvette Mitchell walked into Hudson’s Bay Co.’s flagship department store in downtown Toronto with a resume.

She loved fashion and wanted to work on the third floor — the epicentre of women’s designer clothing in Canada.

She was hired on the spot.

“I was so excited,” Mitchell said in an interview. “I had a great interest in fashion and thought where else to go than the Bay.”

Two decades later, the retail veteran said she was in shock when the company unilaterally altered the terms of her employment, changing her permanent part-time status to that of an “auxiliary associate.”

Mitchell, who had been on a temporary layoff since April 2020, last month received a letter from HBC outlining the status change.

It not only meant Mitchell would go from a guaranteed 30-hour work week to an arbitrary range of zero to 27 hours a week, she would also lose her health and dental benefits, five-weeks vacation and potentially her pension entitlements going forward, she said.

“I felt like they were forcing me to quit … to hijack my severance pay,” Mitchell said. “I felt really hopeless and lost.”

She took her case to a lawyer, who has filed a statement of claim in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice alleging wrongful dismissal.

She is seeking damages for her lost benefits and pension entitlements, accrued vacation pay and lost salary and commissions, it said.

It’s also seeking damages for the bad faith manner of termination and punitive damages.

The claim said Mitchell was sent home last March at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic and in April was temporarily laid off due to a shortage of work amid ongoing store closures. Last month, she received a letter informing her that her position had changed.

The claim says the retailer engaged in “constructive termination,” arguing that by unilaterally changing the terms of her employment during a temporary layoff, the company has not provided Mitchell with proper notice or severance pay.

The claims made in the filings have not been proven in court.

The company said in a statement that as it is an active litigation “it would be inappropriate to comment on the particulars of this case.”

The Hudson’s Bay location in downtown Toronto has been either closed or under strict capacity restrictions since March 17, 2020.

But Mackenzie Irwin, an employment lawyer representing Mitchell, said it’s illegal for an employer to make significant changes to an employee’s hours of work, pay or duties — even during the pandemic — unless they have consent from that person.

“What HBC is trying to do is change the terms of her employment such that they could potentially award her zero hours in any given week,” said Irwin, an associate with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP in Toronto.

“It creates serious instability… and is quite palpably unfair.”

A worker has the right to treat sweeping changes to their job as a termination through constructive dismissal, and leave with an amount of severance based on their age, years of service and position, she added.

“Our firm has seen examples in the past where a company has drastically cut down a long-term employee’s hours,” Irwin said. “Once that individual has worked under this new arrangement long enough, they are let go from their job and offered an inadequate severance package based not on their previous qualifications, but instead their new and reduced hours of work.”

A recent court decision — the first of its kind to deal with a COVID-19 layoff in Ontario — could be favourable to Mitchell’s case, said employment and business lawyer Adam Savaglio.

The Ontario Superior Court decision confirmed that common law rules on layoffs override Ontario’s Infectious Disease Emergency Leave legislation, he said.

“This decision where a constructive dismissal has been found as a result of a pandemic-caused layoff has swung the pendulum in favour of employees to the serious detriment of employers,” said Savaglio, a partner at Scarfone Hawkins LLP.

“This has the potential to tie up the courts with more claims against businesses that haven’t been generating income,” he said. “It could be nuclear for businesses facing termination payouts, that are already struggling with forced closures and restrictions on business.”

On Mitchell’s case, Savaglio said there are some genuine issues raised in the claim, without even taking into consideration the recent court decision.

For example, he said an employer can’t fundamentally change a contract without consideration or working notice to the employee, and that an individual’s time on layoff may not be considered “working notice.”

Still, he said there are obligations for workers to mitigate their losses, such as attempting to find other comparable work.

Meanwhile, Mitchell said she’s not alone. She said she knows of several other longtime HBC workers who have had the terms of their employment similarly altered.

In January, HBC said it was permanently laying off more than 600 workers as a result of ongoing lockdowns that have shuttered many of the retailer’s stores across the country for months.

Many of those workers received a so-called working notice, which means they are expected to work until the termination date.

Employment lawyer Lior Samfiru, a partner with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, called it “absurd” to offer working notices when stores are closed and said HBC should be providing severance pay.

For Mitchell, she said she was a loyal and dedicated employee for 21 years.

“They had a choice to package me out, to give me a severance and be done with it,” she said. “Instead they’ve changed my position so that come September, they don’t owe me anything — no benefits, no pension, not even hours.”

“I’ve worked so hard,” she said. “I just want what’s fair.”

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

Labour

Just Posted

File photo
Paramedic training returning to Castlegar

Emergency Medical Responder and Primary Care Paramedic training to take place in Castlegar

Doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine are seen being prepared on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Decatur, Ga. Hundreds of children, ages 12 to 15, received the Pfizer vaccine at the DeKalb Pediatric Center, just days after it was approved for use within their age group. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)
One death, 60 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The death is connected to the outbreak at Spring Valley long-term care in Kelowna

South Okanagan MP Richard Cannings wants to see dental coverage for all Canadians. (courtesy of Pixabay)
OPINION: South Okanagan MP fights for universal dental care

One in three Canadians have no dental coverage, with COVID making it even worse

COVID-19 cases are once again dropping across the West Kootenay. Illustration: BC Centre for Disease Control
Ten new cases of COVID-19 in Nelson area

Numbers are steadily dropping across the West Kootenay

Dep. Fire Chiefs Rich Piché (left) and Stephane Dionne said they were disappointed that only one person showed up at the George Evans fire hall’s recruitment drive Tuesday evening, May. 11. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Grand Forks Fire/Rescue says rural fire hall at risk of closing

Home insurance could spike across North Fork if George Evans fire hall loses fire protection status

Conservation Service Officer Kyle Bueckert holds a gold eagle that was revived from acute rodent poisoning Monday, May 12. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks residents, Conservation Service Officer save poisoned eagle

CSO Kyle Bueckert released the eagle into the wild Thursday, May 13

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking on a remote forest road in Naramata on May 10. (Submitted)
Kamloops brothers identified as pair found dead near Penticton

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking

Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)
Online council meetings, mail-in voting option to be extended in B.C.

Proposed law makes municipal COVID-19 exceptions permanent

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
British Columbians aged 20+ can book for vaccine Saturday, those 18+ on Sunday

‘We are also actively working to to incorporate the ages 12 to 17 into our immunization program’

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
2nd person in B.C. diagnosed with rare blood clotting after AstraZeneca vaccine

The man, in his 40s, is currently receiving care at a hospital in the Fraser Health region

Brian Peach rescues ducklings from a storm drain in Smithers May 12. (Lauren L’Orsa video screen shot)
VIDEO: Smithers neighbours rescue ducklings from storm drain

Momma and babies made it safely back to the creek that runs behind Turner Way

Signage for ICBC, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, is shown in Victoria, B.C., on February 6, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
$150 refunds issued to eligible customers following ICBC’s switch to ‘enhanced care’

Savings amassed from the insurance policy change will lead to one-time rebates for close to 4 million customers

The Libby Dam on the Kootenai River in Montana. The dam created the Koocanusa Reservoir, which straddles the B.C./Montana border. (photo courtesy Wikipedia)
Outflow at Libby Dam to be increased

Volume increase to aid migration and spawning conditions for endangered white sturgeon in the Kootenai River

Police investigate a fatal 2011 shooting in a strip mall across from Central City Shopping Centre, which was deemed a gang hit. The Mayor’s Gang Task Force zeroed in on ways to reduce gang involvement and activity. (File photo)
COVID-19 could be a cause in public nature of B.C. gang violence: expert

Martin Bouchard says the pandemic has changed people’s routines and they aren’t getting out of their homes often, which could play a role in the brazen nature of shootings

Most Read