POLITICS

Former Staffer Warns About Lack Of Labour Rights On The Hill

04/20/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/19/2015 05:59 EDT

A former Parliament Hill worker wants the system that exempts political staff who work for cabinet ministers from labour laws to be changed.

A provision of the Public Service Employment Act permits ministers to hire staff designated as exempt employees. Those workers have little job security and lack rights that most workers in Canada have because they don't fall under either provincial or federal labour laws.

Jennifer Olchowy worked for a variety of Conservative politicians between 2007 and 2011, most recently as the executive assistant to Minister of State for Seniors and Conservative MP Alice Wong.

Olchowy said it was a fast-paced environment that required long hours and travel across the country.

But that job was short lived. Wong's Chief of Staff, James Yousif, wrote a memo in September 2011 outlining Olchowy's failure to meet several job expectations, including disregarding clear instructions and substituting them with her own, and failing to provide needed work despite repeated requests. Olchowy was terminated a few days later.

Exempt staff can't dispute firings

Olchowy said since the employment of exempt staff is precarious, she had no opportunity to discuss or defend her job performance with her employer.

"Things need to change, policy needs to change," said Olchowy. "People put in a lot of work hours and their rights need to be protected."

Olchowy said she was fired from her job when she was under a doctor's care and advised to be off work for an illness that was later diagnosed as Grave's Disease. In a detailed diagnosis, her doctor wrote that Olchowy's case was the most severe he'd seen in 20 years of practice.

With no mechanism in place to seek a hearing with her employer about the firing, Olchowy turned to the courts.

She filed a lawsuit against her employer for wrongful dismissal in 2013, but a judge ruled the Ontario Superior Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case and it was dismissed. In a statement of defence, Wong's Chief of Staff argued

Olchowy did not request sick leave, nor did she provide a medical note until after her termination.

Olchowy said she initially thought her symptoms of an irregular heartbeat, extreme fatigue and dizziness were related to stress and jet lag, but later discovered it was due to her thyroid condition.

"I totally believe that because I was so sick, my job performance really suffered."

Concerns about work performance

Olchowy said she thought she had the support of Minister Wong. On the same day she was fired, Olchowy said in court documents that Wong told her she was doing a great job, that she should not worry about the work and get better.

Olchowy said two hours later she was fired and was not allowed to speak to the minister after that. The government denies Olchowy was wrongfully dismissed.

In a statement of defence, Wong's chief of staff said Olchowy's deteriorating job performance had become very serious and could not be allowed to continue.

Immediately after her termination, Olchowy was supposed to receive a severance package, but she said that never happened.

In fact, access to information and other departmental documents show a series of clerical and administrative issues concerning her record of employment, severance, tax and pension remain unresolved.

The government has offered Olchowy a settlement on two different occasions. She said she refused the offers because the facts and figures in the documents continue to be in error.

She also took her concerns about dismissal to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, but the commission declined to take the case to tribunal.

Exempt staff face labour hurdles

Chris Rootham, an Ottawa labour lawyer, said there are challenges for exempt staff to find the right legal forum to fight for their rights or establish their entitlement to benefits.

"There are a number of options that could be taken to better protect political staff," said Rootham. "They could be exempt for certain purposes, but still get access to a dispute resolution mechanism, similar to Parliamentary staff or other employees in the public service."

There is one group of political staffers protected by a collective agreement. The president of the union representing NDP staff members on Parliament Hill said the union's collective voice gives the employer and employees a chance to work towards solutions — beyond dismissal.

Jennifer Olchowy said her health has improved, but she won't be hitting the campaign trail this election season. She said politicians and colleagues she worked with on the Hill have been unwilling to help fight for her rights or benefits.

"I put members of parliament on pedestals. I have to say my views don't align with them anymore."

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