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British Columbia Six employees file human-rights complaints against UBC

People walk past large letters spelling out UBC at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Nov. 22, 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Six employees at the University of British Columbia have filed human-rights complaints that involve top administrators at the school, alleging discrimination against pregnant and disabled workers.

The Association of Administrative and Professional Staff, the union representing about 4,500 UBC employees, said it has been working with its lawyers and the employees to file eight complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal since May.

The complainants chose to go public to ensure the university was held publicly accountable, the union’s executive director Joey Hansen said.

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“This is clearly a systemic pattern on behalf of the university’s leadership,” said Mr. Hansen, adding the union wanted the process to be public.

According to the filings obtained by The Globe, the complaints involve UBC’s chief information officer Jennifer Burns, dean of education Blye Frank and UBC Okanagan’s dean of health and social development Gord Binsted. The remaining two complaints name only UBC.

The complaints have been accepted for filing by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, Mr. Hansen said. Parties may settle before a hearing is reached.

The Globe reached out to the administrators named in the complaint. Dr. Binsted said he was aware of the complaint and declined further comment. The others did not respond to a request for comment.

In a written statement, UBC told The Globe and Mail it is aware of the complaints but denies the allegations.

“We take seriously any discrimination concerns that are brought to our attention,” wrote Kurt Heinrich, senior director of UBC’s media relations.

“Given the privacy interests of those involved, the university will not be making any further comment about this matter and will defend its position at the tribunal.”

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Mr. Heinrich said in his statement the university wishes to keeps the names of the university administrators and the complainants private because the allegations “constitute private and confidential information and releasing this information could be very harmful to these individuals.”

The tribunal does not make details of complaints public until three months before a hearing is scheduled. So far, only one of the complaints has had a hearing date and that hearing won’t take place until next year.

Mr. Hansen said UBC has filed responses for six of the eight complaints so far. Mr. Hansen was careful not to disclose personal information about the employees, but he said UBC’s response in some instances was “morally repugnant.” Mr. Hansen said the university demanded extensive medical records to prove conditions the university had previously accepted and accommodated.

The union is also alleging that UBC took punitive actions to retaliate when it discovered the complaints, such as rescinding its promise to give a good reference for a former employee.

Mr. Hansen said one of the complainants alleges she was denied a promised promotion after a supervisor found out she was pregnant. In several others, the union alleges employees were terminated while they suffered from medical conditions such as concussions. The union claims that the university failed to reasonably accommodate these employees.

"President [Santa] Ono likes to say UBC is on a road from excellence to eminence, but frankly the university treats these people like they’re speedbumps on that road,” Mr. Hansen said.

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Laura Track, a lawyer with the B.C. Human Rights Clinic, noted all employers have a “duty to accommodate” disabled individuals and failing that duty can constitute discrimination. UBC will likely have to prove that accommodating the employees would have caused “undue hardship,” she said.

“But for a respondent like UBC, which is a large institution with access to substantial resources, their duty to accommodate is going to be significant.”

The tribunal is able to order employees reinstated and discriminatory behaviour to cease. It can also award damages to claimants for wages lost, expenses incurred, and for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

Two of the tribunal’s largest historical awards have been against UBC for discrimination against disabled students.

In both cases, Ms. Track said, the tribunal found that UBC didn’t do nearly enough to explore accommodation options.

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