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Winnipeg School Division accused of using outdated human rights policies: Report

June 27, 2023
The Canadian Press

By Maggie Macintosh, Winnipeg Free Press

The Winnipeg School Division has been accused of falling short of legal obligations to protect employees with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups due to outdated human rights policies and practices.

A new report warns educational workers’ experiences with requesting and receiving accommodations in WSD highlight “a number of serious concerns” that underpin the employer’s need to ensure it is complying with the Manitoba Human Rights Code.

“Failure to accommodate, short of undue hardship, puts the division at risk of a successful human rights complaint,” states an excerpt of an 125-page employment equity audit commissioned by the division last year.

“In addition, the lack of accommodation undermines employees’ ability to do their jobs fully and to the best of their ability.”

The province’s largest district, which employs roughly 6,400 part- and full-time individuals, published the unredacted results of a review of its recruitment, hiring, training, promotion, retention and accommodation procedures and how they are carried out across its 79 schools June 23.

At the same time, the board of trustees announced its commitment to considering all 82 recommendations — 58 of which have already been “identified and actioned upon.”

Questions to job applicants

For example, WSD has indicated it is in the process of updating protocols to stop asking job applicants both if they are a citizen or have a physical disability, mental disability or health problem that affects the position they are seeking to fall in line with provincial legislation.

Turner Consulting Group, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in reviews centring employees from groups that have historically faced barriers in the labour market, analyzed WSD’s policy manual and surveyed workers via online poll, focus groups and one-on-one interviews.

The review team heard from roughly 600 individuals in all, nearly 10 per cent of the WSD workforce. It sought out perspectives from staff members who are female, racialized, Indigenous, LGBTTQ+ or live with a disability, or a combination of the above.

The final calls to action range from the creation of a scent-free workplace policy to reflect the organization’s obligation to support staff members with fragrance sensitivities to the universal implementation of exit interviews so managers can collect feedback and act on it.

Retribution for seeking help

Several recommendations address reports of hesitancy around accommodation requests and a perception employees can face retribution for seeking help.

More than half of employee respondents across every demographic group that participated in the audit survey indicated they would hesitate to ask for work modifications if they had a mental health disability.

Only 23 per cent of individuals with disabilities indicated they would not think twice about seeking support in such a scenario.

“The vast majority of experiences and perspectives shared that (employees) and their colleagues have a difficult time accessing the accommodation they are due under the Manitoba Human Rights Code,” the report states.

One employee who is quoted in the report said: “A request for accommodation would be the end of your career.”

“I have mental health disabilities and I have no idea how to ask for accommodations. I’ve been assuming that I’ll just need to leave teaching to be happy,” another said.

Recommendations 56 through 68 underline WSD’s responsibilities to address ableism in all its forms.

A WSD news release categorizes many of the recommendations as standard across all education and business sectors, while noting the division’s commitment to keeping community members in the loop about its progress on them.

Board’s response

The board has pledged to continue consulting with staff, investigate ways to improve employee work-life balance and request provincial funding for public bodies to meet accommodation requirements under new accessibility legislation and the human rights code.

Gregg Walker of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association said he recognized many of the comments in the report, particularly around participant concerns about retribution and allegations hiring is based on nepotism and favouritism rather than merit.

“I’ve had conversations with our employer much of this year about their staff morale and how defeated many of their teachers feel — and they’re aware of it. This is not a surprise to us at all. There are a lot of frustrated employees in the Winnipeg School Division,” Walker said.

The association president indicated prioritizing clear and consistent communication on policies and practices, from hiring to accommodations within the division, would go a long way.

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