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Warning: In the fine tradition of Jerry Seinfeld, the attached item could truly be described as an "article about nothing". While it addresses something I've thought about occasionally, and it seemed like the proper occasion to discuss it, I can't (in good conscience) promise you that this item will advance your knowledge and expertise in the area of employment law in any tangible way whatsoever!

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ARE HUMANS THE WEAK LINK?

It’s a busy time in the news for the world of employment. Much of the recent news proves that humans can be the weak link in the chain when it comes to the employment relationship.

In Edmonton, a man stands accused of invading a Workers’ Compensation Board office with a rifle and holding nine people hostage for hours. He is charged with unlawful confinement, pointing a firearm, possession of a weapon dangerous to the public and other offences.

News reports indicated that his frustration with the workers’ compensation claims process was (in part) his motivation for this desperate act. He isn’t alone in his frustration but that, of course, doesn’t excuse such heinous disregard for the liberty and safety of others.

At Minneapolis, pilots of a Northwest Airlines flight are under scrutiny after having over-flown their destination by over 100 miles. Passengers were, apparently, unaware that anything was wrong even as the jet fell out of contact with air traffic controllers for over an hour.

The initial explanation given was that the flight crew was distracted due to a heated discussion. No evidence has yet been released – from the jet’s cockpit voice recorder – as to what was actually going on but some industry observers have speculated the pilots may have fallen asleep.

In Toronto, there is a developing furor over the arrest and charging of a shopkeeper as a result of him, along with his employees, having captured an alleged shoplifter and held him for police. The shop had been repeatedly victimized by the same individual and, having had enough, the owner and his employees caught the thief, tied him up, and held him in a van while awaited the arrival of police.

The owner has been charged with forcible confinement and concealing a weapon (he apparently had a box cutter on his belt at the time – not exactly a weapon of mass destruction) as a result of the takedown of the thief. The decision by crown prosecutors to charge the shopkeeper seems like the sort of ill-advised exercise of discretion that happens in an organization preoccupied with procedure at the expense of results.

Is there any common thread linking these three situations? Or, was it just a busy week for strange tales from the employment world?

I do think one thing that can be said about these stories is that they all demonstrate that nobody is perfect. Regardless of the badge we wear – workers’ compensation claims adjudicator, airline pilot, or crown prosecutor – we are all just human under the skin.

The workers’ compensation hostage story has drawn all sorts of frustrated, unsuccessful claimants out of the woodwork to voice their support for the gunman. They will take advantage of this almost-tragic episode to advance their agenda of bad-mouthing their provincial workers compensation regime.

The fact is that thousands upon thousands of workers’ compensation claims are filed in each province each year – no enviable record, that – and the vast majority of those claims are accepted and are processed swiftly and smoothly. Although obvious, it bears noting that the complainers will tend to fall within the category whose claims were rejected.

As cumbersome and seemingly impenetrable as government-operated administrative structures (workers compensation, employment standards, human rights, and labour relations to name a few) can seem at times, my experience is that they tend to be populated by people who care deeply about their work and take pride in what they do. One of the tasks they are charged with is weeding out the undeserving claims.

Do they make the occasional mistake? Of course they do, just like you and I do in the course of our own work. But that’s why appeal processes exist. Anyone with the time and motivation can easily discover the available structures by which a denied claim can be reconsidered.

The airline story is one which strikes close to home for anyone who ever boards an airline which, I’d guess, is just about all of us. The concept of pilots, with hundreds of lives in their hands, losing focus to the extent of missing their destination is one which can cause the heart to skip a beat.

But long before pilots got their wings, they joined the fraternity of humanity. Humans make mistakes, lose focus, get sleepy, and occasionally miss their appointed destinations.

That doesn’t mean its okay and it doesn’t mean the public should accept anything but a thorough and conclusive investigation and review of systems and policies to minimize the chances of it being repeated. It does mean that those who think that just because a person is a pilot he or she shouldn’t ever make an error should give their head a shake.

Perhaps because our chosen vocation tends to comprise so much of our identity – we all seem to be labeled as pilots or plumbers or real estate salespeople or firefighters first and foremost – we acquire certain expectations and stereotypes that are often unrealistic or baseless.

Not all workers’ compensation staff are unfeeling bureaucrats, not all prosecutors are policy slaves, and not all pilots catch up on missed sleep in the cockpit. It is unfair of us to hold them up to standards of conduct which any human would find challenging.

It’s comforting to be able to point a finger at others and rest assured that, because they are government employees or prosecutors or pilots (and we aren’t) their failings aren’t our own. But that’s a false dichotomy that serves no purpose other than to allow us a little undeserved satisfaction in our own perceived superiority.

Perhaps the workers’ compensation people made a mistake. Perhaps the police and prosecutors acted rashly in charging the shopkeeper. Perhaps the pilots lost focus temporarily. Chances are, however, that they didn’t do it with the intention of causing harm to anyone and that they’re in the process of learning a supreme life lesson from these episodes.

Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log onto www.pushormitchell.com. Past “Legal Ease” columns, may be viewed at http://www.pushormitchell.com/law-library/publication/legal-ease. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice.

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