BUSINESS

Teens Fired For Observing Religious Holiday Win $26,000 At Rights Tribunal

08/20/2015 08:00 EDT | Updated 08/20/2016 05:59 EDT
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It was slow going for Old Order Mennonite carriages returning from church Sunday, Jan. 12, 2003, in Dayton, Va. The stoplight's magnetic detector at Va. 42 and Huffman Drive doesn't register the horse-drawn buggies, so traffic can back up at the intersection. Transportation officials say they may have a $5 solution to a $130,000 traffic problem by adding a copper wire to the undercarriage of the buggies. Tests are underway. (AP Photo/The Daily News-Record, Allen Litten)
TORONTO — A pair of Ontario teenagers will soon be collecting thousands of dollars after their employer fired them for observing a religious holiday.

The province's Human Rights Tribunal ruled that vegetable grower Country Herbs discriminated against the young siblings on the basis of their creed.

The tribunal heard and accepted evidence that the teens, identified only by their initials, provided several weeks of notice that they planned to take the day off to celebrate a holiday that was important to their Christian Mennonite faith.

Only the 16-year-old sister H.T. was scheduled to work that day, but both she and her 14-year-old brother J.T. were fired immediately after she failed to report to work.

Country Herbs argued that it dismissed H.T. for not complying with its attendance policy, but the tribunal ruled that the company made no effort to work with her to accommodate her religious beliefs.

The tribunal also found that her brother was let go solely for his association with her and awarded the pair more than $26,000 in compensation and lost wages.

Zahra Binbrek, the lawyer representing the teens before the tribunal, said the ruling marked an important victory for an issue and age group that often get overlooked.

"There isn't a large amount of cases around religious accommodations, so it's nice to be able to contribute to that area of law," she said. "But of course, for them, this is a very important case...It takes quite a bit to assert your human rights in the workplace. They're quite vulnerable at that age."

Michael Pass, the lawyer representing Country Herbs, declined to comment on the ruling.

The tribunal heard that both H.T. and J.T. began working for the southwestern Ontario company in April 2014. The elder sister worked full time packaging produce, while the younger brother primarily made boxes to hold the completed packages.

Country Herbs said it had an attendance policy barring people from taking a day off on Thursdays, since that was the day on which they had to ship products to grocery stores keen to stock shelves for the weekend shopping rush.

The Christian Mennonite holiday of Himmelfahrt happened to fall on Thursday, May 29, however, and H.T. informed the employer that she would be unable to work that day. The tribunal said that her brother had not been scheduled to put in a shift on that day.

Since the company had previously given her a day off to complete a CPR course, H.T. told the tribunal she assumed there would be no problem accommodating the new request.

A week later, however, the company informed her that she would either have to work her scheduled shift on the holiday or make up the hours by coming in at midnight on May 30.

H.T. felt the alternative was unreasonable, since she could not arrange transportation at that hour and was uncomfortable working so far into the night. Country Herbs had previously accommodated a request to end both siblings' shifts no later than 10 p.m.

When H.T. failed to show up for work on the holiday, one of Country Herbs co-owners contacted her mother to inquire if she was coming. When her mother informed him that H.T. would not be present either during the holiday or at midnight the following day, he advised that she never needed to come back.

When the mother asked if this decision applied to J.T. as well, she was told that it did.

The tribunal decision contained sharp criticism on this point.

"I find that while he 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 further concluded that Country Herbs had made no effort to honour H.T.'s request for religious accommodation by discussing alternative arrangements, something all businesses are required to do until the point where the request places them under "undue hardship."

Binbrek said the ruling highlights the importance of discussing such issues when they arise in the workplace.

"It reminds employers that they do have a duty to accommodate on the basis of religion," she aid. "They have to engage in a meaningful process of figuring out what is the best accommodation."

The tribunal ordered Country Herbs to pay the siblings $17,500 in damages and $8,617 in lost wages.