Teenagers fired for observing religious holiday get $26,000 in damages

The word

Another lesson in what not to do as an employer.

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has awarded a brother and sister $26,000 in damages and lost wages after they were fired by Country Herbs for observing a religious holiday.

The 16-year old girl ─ H.T. ─ was fired because she did not come to work on a Thursday that happened to be the Christian Mennonite holiday Himmelfahrt. She had given Country Herbs advance notice. Her 14-year older brother ─ J.T.─ was not scheduled to work on the Mennonite holiday but was fired nonetheless.

H.T. worked at Country Herbs on a full-time basis packing produce. J.T. made boxes to hold the packages.

H.T. was told to either work her shift on May 29, or make up the hours by coming at midnight on May 30. She found this unreasonable as she could not arrange for transportation for a midnight shift and was not comfortable with the late hours. When she did not show up on May 29, the employer contacted her mother and told her the two siblings did not need to return to work.

The tribunal vice chairwoman was not happy with the employer’s dismissal of the two teens.

“I find that while [J.T.] was not scheduled to work, he was in any event fired because of his association with his sister who had asserted her right not to work on the holiday, and with whom he shares the same religion,” tribunal vice-chair, Dawn Kershaw, wrote in her decision.

She also criticized Country Herb’s lack of co-operation to come up with a reasonable alternative.

Employees in Canada are not to be punished for holding religious beliefs that may require them to celebrate their own religious holidays. Most provinces and territories have human rights legislation — such as the Ontario Human Rights Code — which give every person the right to equal treatment based on religion.

See: What is discrimination?

In cases involving religious holidays, the courts have interpreted this right as requiring Canadian employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs, unless doing so creates undue hardship. When accommodating an employee poses undue hardship to the employer, negotiations are encouraged to come up with something that works for everyone.

This decision is significant for the country because there have not been many religious holiday cases decided by Canadian courts.

Another important aspect of this case is that teens are often overlooked when it comes to employment issues. The tribunal’s decision sent a strong message to employers to respect the rights of youth employees.

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