Kathy's Story

Discrimination in Kathy's WorkplAce

My name is Kathy Symington and I joined the HRM fire service in Sept. 1997 and was assigned to Three Station on West street in Halifax. I was SO excited to become a professional Halifax firefighter. I spent two happy and successful years at Three Station without incident but then I was transferred to Two Station on University Avenue. During my time at Two Station the Captain I had been working for, sadly, became ill and left the job, which allowed another Captain to take over his spot. The new assigned captain was X. We had a great working crew at Two Station and we often went out for social activities and helped each other out when we could. I noticed after a while that Captain X was saying inappropriate things to me and wanting more than just being my Captain at the station, so I started bringing my girlfriend with me on social outings, to act as a buffer. 

 

Shortly after rebuffing my Captain’s advances several times in a row, my vehicle started being vandalized where i parked it at my workplace. Three times in 2001, in April, May and December it was vandalized. No one else’s vehicle was vandalized. I was being singled out and targeted. After my vehicle had been vandalized the second time, the Deputy Chief told me to park my car inside the stations to prevent further vandalism. I did this until Winter when I felt pressured to park outside like everyone else. After a few shifts of parking my vehicle outside Captain X called me to see what was being done about the vandalisms. I told him I was parking outside again and trying to get on with my life.  Within a few shifts, my vehicle was vandalized again. My vehicle was the only one being vandalized, not broken into, but windows taken out or “center-punched”, with a tool we used on the fire trucks to take out windows at accidents. I was being targeted by a harasser and I needed help and protection.


After this 3rd incident, I went off work until something was done to protect me on the job. Management decided to set up surveillance in and around the beginning of January 2002 at one of the stations in hope of catching the perpetrator. Captain R was on vacation in Australia, Mexico, and Hawaii during this period. Once the surveillance was set up I returned to work on days (only), I feared for my safety on the job as a firefighter and didn’t understand why this was being done to me.  


During this time I was taken aside and told by senior management that Captain X was not to be informed about my situation and the steps they were taking to catch the perpetrator. Captain X, who was in Australia at the time, contacted me many times wanting to know what actions were being taken by fire management and police. I withheld the information from him, as requested by fire management.  


In February 2002, the deputy chief told me that after my vehicle had been vandalized the 3rd time, he met with the Chief and another deputy and they surmised that Captain X was the perpetrator attacking me on the job because he (in their words) was acting like a jilted lover. 


He was never my lover.

Kathy's Union's Response

I went to my union on this issue after management agreed that Captain X was likely the perpetrator, but my union did nothing. They said that because both Captain X and I were in the same union they could not represent one member over another. As time went on, I started to be pressured by management to put in a written complaint of harassment on Captain X.   


I eventually insisted on an outside investigation and management agreed. I submitted a 95 page document that was to go directly to the investigator M. M. I later found out that management held my complaint for 4 to 6 months before ever passing it on to the investigator. During this time they apparently handed out edited versions of my complaint to everyone named in my complaint, including their perpetrator Captain X. This seemed to me to be an action of bad faith. It was clear to me that management was not interested in protecting me from harassment. 


I contacted the R.C.M.P. Because H.P.D. would do nothing to help me. It seemed they were collaborating with my harasser. Once the R.C.M.P. got involved H.P.D. jumped up and preemptively gave Captain X. an H.P.D. (not RCMP) lie detector test, which they claim he passed, I have no idea what the questions were nor were the results made available to me, nor confirmed. This was not an RCMP lie detector test.   

Once the RCMP were involved and management started to feel threatened, they began to retaliate against me. They all of a sudden started saying I was lying, sent me for a physical which ended up being a psychological evaluation — which I passed and was deemed fit for duty. I was told they would not give me a lie detector test when I requested to have one. They sent me letters blaming me for causing problems for Captain X. and management.  


I went to my union many times for help but they claimed it had nothing to do with them. But as soon as I put a charge in against Captain X., I was told that the union president jumped right in to represent him, but they continued to deny me representation. 


In 2004, I was in a car accident which caused whiplash and other issues related to that injury. On November 4th, 2004 I received a registered letter from the Chief saying I was being suspended for three shifts for putting in a workplace rights complaint and that they and the outside investigator found my complaint as unfounded.  He said it was just a reality check that this type of behaviour is not accepted in the fire service and that I will be dealt with when I come back to work. The disciplinary letter was only given to me and a deputy chief, it was not forwarded to nor discussed with the union, as is normally done in these circumstances. On November 5th 2005, I had a baby, and was home taking care of her, when I received another suspension letter for not answering an email while on parental leave. I was very busy as a single mother and wasn't expecting any correspondence from anyone in fire. I was told by management to contact my union and to put in the proper paperwork for my return to work date. I did contact my union secretary and requested assistance. I was told by the secretary to find someone else to help me, they did not want to deal with me and my issues.  


In 2007 I worked really hard and tried to get back to work but was unable to because I couldn’t pick up 100 lbs above my head, which is a requirement for the job.  So management decided to put me on leave without pay for 7 weeks, to try to get back to work.  I was left with no income for 7 weeks because my parental leave was up.  This is all illegal actions taken by my employer, but my union did nothing to help me with this issue. So before I returned to work I forwarded the suspension letters to the union to see what they had to say about it.  They did nothing about the discriminatory 7 weeks without pay, nor the illegal and discriminatory suspension letters I received.  


I eventually got healthier and passed my physical and returned to work with the suspension letters hanging over my head in January 2007.


During my return to work, I tried many times to have the suspension letters removed from my file, only to be told by management through the union, that if I continued to try to get those suspension letters off my file, management would implement the three days suspension and keep them on my file for five more years. The union did (at this point) put in a number of grievances to have the suspension letters be removed from my file and eventually a chief wrote a letter saying that there would be no discipline for me and that they would, indeed, be removed from my file.  


In and around 2011 I had to go off work because of the accident in 2004 as the symptoms had come back and gotten worse. I had an operation in February 2011 and was put off work. In 2013, I was hoping to return to work in an “accommodation” position in Fire because it was determined by my doctors that I could not return to firefighting because of my physical condition. On my way to my first accommodation meeting, I travelled with my union shop steward, who informed me that there was nothing for me in Fire and that all I was going to get offered was Parks and Works or Canada Pension. I was surprised by this because I had many conversations with the E.O. to the Chief who said I'd be accommodated probably in Sackville, NS, in Fire Prevention. Once at the meeting I was again told by everyone that I was going to be accommodated but I had to formally write to the chief requesting accommodation.


The chief was brand new on the job and I wanted to meet him, since he was the one going to decide whether or not I'd get a job. I made an appointment to meet with the chief and when my Union Reps found out about my plan, they screamed and yelled at me and was told this was tantamount to “refusing representation”, which obviously was not true. Regardless, the chief would not meet with me regarding accommodation, so instead I thought I take the opportunity to tell him my story on the job. Within five minutes of meeting, he told me there were no jobs for me in fire, nothing at all.


My union and management kept giving me conflicting information: My union reps kept on pushing me to write my request for accommodation even though the chief told me to get my medical first and then write my letter requesting accommodation. The chief went on vacation and I was contacted by E.O. for the chief telling me to write my letter by June 30th, which I did.


I eventually received at phone call from C. B. S. who I had never heard of before, telling me that there was nothing for me in Fire. I told her that the E.O. for the chief had told me that I would be accommodated within Fire so she said she would get hold of the E.O. and Health Services and set up a meeting to see why I was getting mixed messages. During this meeting there was no union representation because I was being accused of refusing representation. On this point I need to be very clear. I never did refuse union representation. I only requested a new union rep to represent me as I felt I was being misrepresented. I was told “no”, I would have to deal with the same shop Steward, B. M. During the meeting, it was suggested that before they could determine whether I could be accommodated in Fire, I needed a new “functional” assessment. At that same meeting, everyone had agreed that the 2012 “functional” assessment would suffice and I did not need to get an additional assessment.


In and around this time, I was hearing lots of rumours by my union reps, claiming that I had been offered and then refused job positions. This is flatly untrue. I had been offered nothing, as a matter of fact I was being told by everyone in charge that there was nothing for me in Fire.


In September 2013, after meeting with the chief, I called him to find out why I was not being accommodated within Fire, and he told me it was because I had not responded to an email and/or phone call. I told him I didn't understand, I had done everything that was expected of me. I then requested my personnel file which showed both suspension letters still on my file. They were supposed to have been removed years prior. The second suspension letter was the suspension I received after not responding to an email or phone call they sent while I was on parental leave! 


I tried to have this dealt with (yet again) by my union reps who advised me to contact management to have the suspensions off of my file, again.

A year after the first accommodation meeting, I was called to a second accommodation meeting, which I did attend. During this meeting I asked why a year had gone by and yet I had been offered no jobs. They were acting like this was my very first accommodation meeting, which confused others that were not at the first accommodation meeting. They didn’t understand why I was frustrated with having my benefits cut off and told there was nothing for me in Fire. I was told by my insurance provider that the E.O. for the chief had been calling them to tell them I wasn't cooperating with the accommodation process and so they were going to cut off my benefits. I was also told that my union reps were saying that I wasn't cooperating with the accommodation process which was totally untrue. This information came to me through my insurance provider. When I told my union reps what the E.O. was doing, they did nothing except to rhetorically ask how was that hurting me.


I was left without union representation for a whole year before management wrote them an email requesting them to represent me during my accommodation process.


I was not offered any jobs during my accommodation process -for over two years. In January 2015, I heard from management and the union reps again, asking me more questions on my abilities etc., before they would  carry on with the accommodation process. I told them I was going to my doctor to get updated info to answer their questions again, and the union said “great”.


 

On April 30th, I went to my doctor who put me off work because of p.t.s.d. caused by all the trauma and abuse I encountered while working at HRM Fire. I was unsure who to send my note to because this stuff is usually done through doctors only. On May 5th, 2015, I  was contacted by management saying they had a possible job for me but by that time I felt it was too late, I felt harassed and targeted by them for years and I couldn’t suffer any more abuse from them.

Impact

During my career with Halifax fire I tried many avenues to get help so I could have a work environment free of harassment, but the union and management only added to my grief, protecting only the perpetrators and punishing me for putting in a workplace human rights complaint. 

 

I decided to talk to lawyers to try to get help but because I am unionized I was restricted from to retaining my own lawyer (as are all unionized employees). The union refused me representation many times, leaving me in harassment, retaliation, bullying, etc. situations -with no way to get help. 

 

I felt victimized not only by the perpetrator but by my union reps and buy management and every other place I tried to get help. I was left in a poisonous work environment and was now being treated as the problem and blamed for everything, as is the experience of most victims of workplace harassment (who file complaints).


I retired in August of 2015. The 2 suspension letters were still on my file in 2019, when my lawyers (whom i was only permitted to retain AFTER I left my union) requested my personnel file.


I fought this injustice from 2000 to 2019, when I finally had my day in court. I'm waiting now for a decision by the arbitrator. Sadly, my union was removed from my complaint by the Human Rights Commission, but as my lawyers stated, they should never have been removed from my complaint, as they are more than guilty of misrepresentation.