Mandatory AA policy deemed "unreasonable"

A labour arbitrator has ruled that Interior Health's policies around hospital workers with substance use issues are discriminatory. The policy is immediately suspended.

According to the ruling, the health region's policy meant any employee who disclosed a substance use issue could be immediately suspended and required the employee to commit to abstinence, monitoring for two years, attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings and regular meetings with administration. The Hospital Employees' Union (HEU) filed a complaint under the Labour Relations Code alleging that these requirements were discriminatory and failed to account for individual circumstances of each employee.

The HEU presented several witnesses who were subjected to the policy. One described it as bullying and that she only agreed to monitoring conditions under "duress." Another was frustrated that despite talking to the employer's selected doctor about symptoms of depression and anxiety, she was only prescribed to attend an "abstinence and 12-step program of recovery" because she admitted to having some struggles with alcohol.

Several expert witnesses also presented on the importance of choice in addictions recovery programs.

Arbitrator John Hall wrote on his concerns with this reliance on 12-step programs:

Dr. [Christy] Sutherland [of the BC Centre on Substance Use] also explained that women often dislike AA because it is very male dominated and they may get “hit on”. Dr. [Charl] Els [Associate (Clinical) Professor at the Departments of Psychiatry and Medicine at the University of Alberta] described AA as an “add-on with acknowledged limitations”. He makes use of the program or reasonable alternatives, but again emphasized flexibility and said he provides individuals with a “menu” of options.

Hall reviewed a number of past cases but concluded that the importance of choice was becoming a medical consensus:

In summary, and without reviewing all of the controversies covered in the expert testimony, I find a greater consensus on different approaches must emerge from the medical field before the arbitral case law should begin to chart a new course.

According to CBC journalist Bethany Lindsay, the HEU has filed similar grievances with every other health authority in the province. Meaning this ruling is likely to affect policies across the province. Such a change would mean cases like Byron Wood's would be a thing of the past.

The HEU has posted a summary of the arbitrator's required changes to Interior Health's policy. The region has until November 28 to appeal the decision.

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