After an almost seven year back-and-forth with McGill, Ron Zahorak, a technician once employed by the university, was fired in late November because an injury limited his lifting abilities.
David Roseman, Vice-President of Labour Relations at the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA), said that McGill’s refusal to place Zahorak in a job commensurate with his capabilities was in contravention of the Quebec Charter of Rights and Articles 37 and 38 of MUNACA’s Collective Agreement with the University, which stipulate that an employee cannot be discriminated against on the basis of disability.
NCS Director Gary Bernstein, who signed the November 26, 2010 letter firing Zahorak, declined to comment.
“We do not make public comments on personnel matters,” wrote Bernstein in an email to The Daily.
In 2003, Zahorak, then a Security and Telecommunication Technician at McGill Network and Communications Services (NCS), was carrying a stepladder and his tools through the back door of the Arts Building when the ladder hit a four-inch recess in the ceiling, hyper-extending his left shoulder and leaving him with a permanent disability.
On December 15, 2010 MUNACA presented a 300-signature petition to the University, demanding that Zahorak be placed in a job.
Lynne Gervais, Associate Vice-Principal of Human Resources, said that McGill had made “every possible effort within the constraints of what the CSST [the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail du Québec] said…was allowed,” echoing the words used in the administration’s formal response to the petition.
Adrienne Gibson, Quebec Regional Representative of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which has a service agreement with MUNACA, explained that McGill’s position was the result of a “legal grey zone.”
“There is this interpretation that…because the CSST is involved in getting injured employees back to work, the CSST has the responsibility of ensuring that the Quebec Charter is applied – and nobody else,” said Gibson.
“We’re not talking about a firefighter whose injuries might have posed a safety risk – we’re talking about someone whose limitations are lifting his arms above his head. … It seems crazy that McGill couldn’t find a job within the limitations of the Charter,” said Gibson.
Zahorak said McGill did little to help him. “The extent of [McGill’s] help was that they would either call me or email me saying, ‘Look, there’s a posting online that you might be interested in,’ which I was doing on my own anyway,” he said.
Zahorak had participated in the expansion of the McGill security system when he started at NCS in 2001. His job was to install, maintain, and configure the relevant software, and teach security personnel how to use it.
“We had it running in a way that we did a lot of upgrades to it ourselves – a lot of homemade stuff. I have a degree in electronics so I did a lot of modifications myself. The system became very personalized to the University,” he said.
Last year, Zahorak lost a new software programming position – which required no physical labour – to someone from outside of McGill, “which once again goes against the Collective Agreement,” Zahorak emphasized.
“The guy that interviewed me for the position, I taught him how to use the system – so how do you not give me that job?” Zahorak said.
Gervais retorted that “jobs that are given here are based on qualifications. If he didn’t get accepted, that’s because he didn’t have the qualifications.”
In an internal newsletter sent December 2 to all staff and obtained by The Daily, MUNACA and PSAC are also disputing McGill’s claim to a “Certificate of Compliance from the federal government’s Federal Contractors Program (FCP),” which is necessary for all provincial employers that receive $200,000 or more in goods or services contracts from the federal government.
“This certificate attests that the University is developing a plan to ensure that no person will be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability,” the memo reads. “Women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities are the four groups targeted by the government.”
“We’re asking the federal government to assess this claim especially in light of Zahorak’s case – and if [the government] has indeed issued a Certificate, to revoke it,” said Gibson.
Zahorak had filed a claim with the CSST and received Workman’s Compensation and Long Term Disability (LTD) payments, which worked out to approximately seventy per cent of his original salary. When his LTD payments ran out, Zahorak had no revenue and went on unpaid leave, but was ordered back to work by McGill in November 2010 before he was fired.
McGill lost all three hearings. The CLP confirmed Zahorak’s permanent disability, and he received a “back-to-work” order from his doctor in November 2009.
“So I went back, and they essentially left me hanging – they refused to reintegrate me, they didn’t pay me, they did absolutely nothing,” said Zahorak.
“I’d come into work everyday at 8 o’clock, sit down, read the paper, have breakfast, and wait ‘til 4 o’clock. Occasionally, they would give me a chore. I’d sit here and answer the phone for a while or do this or do that. And that went on for several months,” he added.
Zahorak claims that, despite his physical limitations, he could still do eighty per cent of his job – and that the remaining twenty per cent “I could probably do – just not repetitively, all day, everyday. But [McGill] said it had to be 100 per cent every day.”
“Since November 2009, they’ve completely and utterly raped the Collective Agreement – they didn’t live up to any of their responsibilities whatsoever,” he added.
Around this time, Zahorak fell into depression and was put on suicide watch at Lakeshore General Hospital in Pointe-Claire, Quebec.
“I had absolutely no revenue; I was a single dad; I had to abandon my apartment; I had to move in with my girlfriend. My girlfriend had to support me and my daughter for an entire year. She doesn’t make all that much – she’s a registered nurse so she makes a half-decent living – but between the two of us we have four kids, so 50,000 [dollars] a year for six people – you can imagine,” Zahorak said.
“I went from being given complete and absolute access to the entire university – I had more access than security did. I could do absolutely anything I want in the system from my home computer in my living room. If I wanted to be malicious, I could have locked down the entire university from home. So I went from that kind of status and access, to not even being able to be good enough to answer a phone,” he continued.
There will be another hearing before an arbiter this year, but no date has yet been set as it is dependent on the employer’s lawyer’s availability.
Zahorak is currently working part-time for MUNACA and has taken out student loans to enroll in a programming analyst and internet solutions course at CDI College.