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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

<a href="Facebook users reported seeing a body on the side of the road this morning." target="_blank"></a>Facebook users reported seeing a body on the side of the road this morning. (File photo)
Man killed in fatal hit-and-run collision between Abbotsford and Chilliwack

Body reported at 6 a.m., police close North Parallel Road, single highway lane as they investigate

Westbound traffic is slow moving on Highway 1 following a crash that has police blocking one lane. Google Maps screenshot taken at 9:07 a.m.
TRAFFIC: Crash on North Parallel Road causes road closure, single westbound Highway 1 lane blocked

Abbotsford Police investigating, roads closed between McDermott and No. 3 Road

Kassandra Clack of Abbotsford has been named one of 18 finalists in the Jim Beam Virtual National Talent Search, taking place in June.
Fraser Valley country singer Kassandra Clack a finalist in national talent search

18 finalists vie to win Jim Beam Virtual National Talent Search in June

Mandeep Grewal was gunned down outside an Abbotsford bank in October 2018. Police said a violent gang war to control drug-line territory was going on at that time. Drug charges have now been announced against seven people. (FILE PHOTO: John Morrow/Abbotsford News)
7 people face 38 charges related to gang drug activity in Abbotsford and Mission

Police say investigation began in 2018 into expansion of Brothers Keepers’ drug line

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

The dash cam footage, taken May 7 at 8:18 a.m. belonged to the driver of a southbound vehicle that recently travelled out of the tunnel. (Reddit/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Dash cam captures dramatic rollover crash on Highway 99

Only one person sustained injuries from the collision, says B.C. Ambulance Services

Chevy stranded on a ledge above a rocky canyon at Mimi Falls near Logan Lake, April 28, 2021. (Photo credit: Margot Wikjord)
Police officer and fire chief team up in risky rescue of stranded dog near Logan Lake

Chevy, a rescue dog, needed rescuing again after getting stuck on a ledge above rocky canyon

Police were on the scene of a fatal shooting in Abbotsford. (Black Press Media files)
B.C. government to give more than $8 million for programs to curb gang violence

221 not-for-profit projects led by local governments and school districts among others will receive a one-time grant

Vancouver Giants earned a 6-2 victory over the visiting Kelowna Rockets Friday night, May 7, in Kamloops (Allen Douglas/special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Vancouver Giants down Kelowna Rockets 6-2

Two short-handed goals for Langley-based team

Gord Judson steers his log truck down a forest service road, using two-way radio and call signals to mark his position for oncoming traffic. (B.C. Forest Safety Council)
Planning some B.C. wilderness fishing? Don’t catch a log truck

Remote recreation areas bracing for heavy pandemic pressure

Former University of British Columbia student Stephanie Hale, 22. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff Bassett
Human Rights Tribunal to hear complaint against UBC Okanagan for ‘mishandling’ sexual assault report

Stephanie Hale did not return to campus after the student she alleges attacked her was cleared of wrongdoing

Most Read