An arbitrator recently upheld the termination of a “reliable and capable” Personal Support Worker (a “PSW”) with no prior disciplinary record, because of significant mistreatment of an individual she was responsible for, and because she did not show the kind of insight required.
The Grievor had 6 years of service as a PSW in a licensed long-term care home (the “Home”). Her most recent performance appraisal showed perfect attendance and an overall rating of 41 out of 48 for the relevant review period. She was nominated for the “2013 Face of Safety Award”, but by May 2013 she had become the face of the villain in a video that was widely circulated in the media.
The Home served vulnerable residents living with significant physical, psychological and/or behavioural impairments. The Grievor’s role as a PSW involved assisting residents with their activities of daily living (ADL), often alone and unsupervised. The resident at the centre of this grievance was an 85-year old woman living with Alzheimer’s (the “Resident”).
The Grievor claimed that on the day of the incident that culminated in her termination, smells emanating from the Resident’s room alerted her to the fact that the Resident needed to be cleaned and changed. She testified that although the Resident resisted care, she persisted out of concern for the Resident’s comfort and her fear that the Resident might develop sores if left unattended in the “pool of urine and feces”. The Grievor also testified that because the Resident was resisting care, she showed the Resident the soiled washcloth to prove to her that she needed care.
The 7-minute montage from a hidden camera that the Resident’s son had placed in the room, and later shared with the media, told a different story. The Resident was seen lying contentedly on her bed until the Grievor attempted to get her out of bed. As the Resident resisted, the Grievor pulled the Resident, grabbed her by her neck and tried to lift her out of bed. The next few minutes were not captured by the camera, as the Grievor and the Resident moved to the bathroom. After they returned the Resident lay on the bed without protest, rolled onto her side without protest and appeared totally compliant. The Grievor then waved the feces-covered cloth in the Resident’s face. As a result the Resident became agitated and began to refuse care. The Grievor persisted in delivering care and roughly pushed the Resident and rolled her around. At no point in the video did the arbitrator see any soiled bedding or any “pool of urine and feces”.
The Home alleged that the Grievor’s conduct constituted abuse, breached the Resident’s Bill of Rights under the Long-Term Care Homes Act, 2007 and breached several organizational and generally accepted protocols.
The Home led evidence that given the Resident’s frailty and the manifestations of Alzheimer’s, it was critical that the Grievor comply with the protocols the Home had developed for dealing with resistance. Instead, the Grievor began by ignoring the two-person lifting and transferring protocol. She also ignored the universally accepted “leave and reapproach” method. When the Resident refused care, instead of persisting, the Grievor should have left, waited a few minutes and then reapproached with the assistance of another employee. The Home maintained that the Grievor’s conduct was a significant breach of trust requiring not just discipline, but termination.
The arbitrator agreed. He said the Grievor demonstrated a “fundamental lack of judgement”, falling within the definition of abuse and going to the heart of the employment relationship. He also acknowledged that long-term care employees like the Grievor held positions of public trust and public interest, which demanded a very high standard of conduct.
The arbitrator commented that reinstatement would have been very likely if he had found that the Grievor had accepted full responsibility and provided him with confidence that she would not repeat her conduct. Moreover, if he had accepted her explanation as being credible and consistent with the video he would have seriously considered reinstatement. Instead, the arbitrator concluded that the Grievor did not seem to grasp that in future she should use the “leave and reapproach” method. Although the Grievor apologized and declared her willingness to undergo counselling and do whatever was required to repair the employment relationship, this was, in the eyes of the arbitrator, not enough to give him the confidence that would make reinstatement appropriate.
The Grievor’s ideal response would have been one that satisfactorily explained her conduct, demonstrated insight, and above all, instilled confidence she would never repeat her conduct. An earnest response would not have “downplayed her culpability”.
On one level this case is a reminder that grievances can turn on the ability to adduce evidence or elicit testimony about the likelihood that an employee will re-offend. Beyond that, this is an important reminder of the value of effective recruitment and selection processes. Employers should design recruitment and selection processes to identify candidates who likely possess the insight to appreciate and apply the policies and training that are provided to help them deal with difficult situations.