CBC’s The Current with Muneeza Sheikh 07 June 2018
The public inquiry into Elizabeth Wettlaufer, the former Ontario nurse convicted of killing eight nursing home patients and harming six others, is raising questions about whether unions often go too far in protecting their members.
The inquiry revealed that before she committed the string of murders, she was issued several warnings and suspensions at the Caressant Care home where she worked in Woodstock, Ont. Her union, the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), filed numerous grievances on her behalf.
When she was finally fired in 2014 after giving a patient an incorrect dose of insulin, the ONA negotiated a $2,000 payment, a letter of recommendation for Wettlaufer to submit to future employers and a deal to reclassify her firing as a voluntary resignation.
Beverly Mathers, the senior director of labour relations at the ONA, said the union filed the grievances to get information from Caressant Care, as they were “working in a void.”
“The employer had been dealing with Elizabeth Wettlaufer throughout her career there and we were not involved at any level where we would have known any details,” she told The Current‘s Anna Maria Tremonti.
However, Wettlaufer’s termination from Caressant Care wasn’t the only case where the union intervened. In 1995, she was fired from Geraldton District Hospital for overdosing on stolen medication during a shift.
I think legally we fulfilled our legal obligations and I don’t think we went too far.– Beverly Mathers, ONA’s senior director of labour relations
The union filed a grievance and had the firing changed to a voluntary resignation for health reasons on her file. Wettlaufer would go on to work at numerous facilities across the province for over two decades.
“I think legally we fulfilled our legal obligations and I don’t think we went too far,” Mathers said.
“We did what we needed to do legally. We did what we needed to do to represent a member.”
Labour and employment lawyer Muneeza Sheikh found the ONA’s response to the matter “grossly disappointing.”
“It sounded like a lot of empty platitudes as far as I’m concerned, and you know, not a lot of accountability,” she told Tremonti.
I think the bigger, overarching problem here is that a lot of unions are kind of trigger happy on filing the grievances.– Muneeza Sheikh, labour and employment lawyer
Sheikh explained that while unions have an obligation to represent their members, they are also responsible for taking the employer’s issues into careful consideration by delving deeper into the member’s performance history.
“I think the bigger, overarching problem here is that a lot of unions are kind of trigger happy on filing the grievances,” she said.
“You have an obligation, yes, to represent your members but that also means you have to have open lines of communication with the employer.”