Arbitrator orders immediate freeze to ‘unreasonable’ Interior Health addictions policy

Interior Health’s policy for handling hospital employees with addiction problems is discriminatory and must be suspended immediately, a labour arbitrator has ruled.

Arbitrator John Hall ordered Interior Health to amend several sections of the current substance use disorder policy, describing them as serious flaws in a ruling Tuesday.

“When the policy as a whole is scrutinized more closely — and especially as its practical application was explained and examined in general terms at arbitration — there are a number of shortcomings. Suffice it to say that several elements of the policy have been found to be unreasonable,” Hall wrote.

The ruling was issued in response to a grievance filed by the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU), which represents about 8,000 workers in hospitals, clinics and care homes in the Interior Health region. The workers include clerical, housekeeping, laundry and food services staff.

Mal Griffin, Interior Health’s vice president of human resources, mental health and substance use, said he was pleased that the ruling upheld most elements of the policy.

“From time to time, it’s appropriate for us to review our policies, and he’s identified some really good opportunities for us to look at how we’ve been implementing the policy and some of the aspects of the policy,” Griffin told CBC.

He said, however, that health authority officials are still reviewing the ruling to decide if they should appeal.

Several changes mandated

Nonetheless, the arbitrator’s ruling amounts to a major overhaul of the current policy and a hopeful sign for other health-care workers pushing for change in how addictions are handled at work.  

Hall said Interior Health can no longer automatically put employees on leave when someone is suspected of having a substance use problem. Right now, people are taken off the job even if their work hasn’t been affected and no matter where the allegations come from.

And Hall said employees shouldn’t be forced to see the addictions specialists chosen by their bosses — if an independent medical exam is needed, the workers must be able to choose from a list of acceptable doctors.

Hospital employees must have a choice in which addictions specialist they see, the arbitrator said. (Shutterstock)

Other necessary amendments include ensuring the policy only applies to employees with severe addictions, new measures to protect workers’ private medical information from their bosses, and restrictions on when a worker’s belongings can be searched.

Hall went on to say that if an employee returns to work after treatment, the health authority can only demand drug testing if there is reasonable suspicion of a relapse.

He said the health authority must consult in good faith with the union for at least 90 days to resolve the problems with the current policy.

Similar grievances filed across B.C.

The HEU said it has filed grievances against every single health authority in the province over similar addiction policies. Those grievances were put on hold pending the outcome of the dispute with Interior Health, and the union said it’s ready to proceed with them if similar changes aren’t made across the board.

HEU’s complaints closely mirror that of Byron Wood, a former Vancouver nurse who has been battling a similar policy that cost him his job five years ago.

Byron Wood lost his job as a nurse after refusing to continue with daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. (Bethany Lindsay/CBC)

Wood says the mandatory 12-step program he was required to attend for treatment of his alcoholism didn’t work for him, and when he requested an alternative, he was refused. He asked to be referred to a new doctor, but his union told him it only uses addictions specialists who require attendance at AA.

On Thursday, Wood said he was encouraged by the ruling, but he believes much more still needs to change.

“I hope that the decision encourages all employers, including the respondents in my case and the College of Nurses and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, to reflect on their own substance use polices,” Wood told CBC News.

“People with substance use problems should be treated compassionately, and offered science-based treatments.”

Wood is currently awaiting the outcome of a complaint he filed with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging he was subjected to discrimination on the basis of religion and mental disability.

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