B.C. juice bar ordered to pay nearly $28K for discriminating against Black teen employee
The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has awarded a Black teenager nearly $28,000 in compensation for discrimination she experienced while working at a restaurant and juice bar in 2019.
The girl – referred to throughout the HRT decision as AB because she is a minor – was 13 in September 2019 when the discrimination occurred at the business, known as Heirloom.
The decision, which was issued last week, does not say where Heirloom is located.
Tribunal member Amber Prince concluded, after a hearing, that Heirloom and its manager, Nicholas Stone, discriminated against AB by singling her out as a bad employee and potential thief with little evidence to support either accusation.
The inciting incident for AB's human rights complaint was a conversation she had with Stone on Sept. 14, 2019.
AB told the tribunal Stone called her to the back of the store to discuss recurring cash shortages during her shifts. The teen alleged that he called her "untrustworthy" and said he and the store's accountant had been "putting two and two together" and concluded cash only went missing during her shifts.
Stone denied using this language or raising his voice, but did not dispute that AB ended the conversation in tears.
The following day, the teen and her mother – referred to in the decision as CD – met with Stone and his boss, Heirloom owner and company president William Greer.
At the meeting, Greer "attempted to smooth over any issue between Mr. Stone and AB," according to Prince's decision. The business owner explained that there could be lots of reasons that the cash doesn't add up and apologized for "any confusion."
The decision indicates that Greer believed the meeting had resolved the issue.
"From Mr. Greer’s perspective, he had promptly de-escalated a miscommunication between AB and Mr. Stone," the decision reads.
"Everyone had the opportunity to talk, and Mr. Greer thought the issue was resolved. From AB and CD’s perspective, Mr. Stone had singled AB out for suspected theft and did not explain why. They also felt that Mr. Greer had glossed over this concern."
After the meeting, AB did not return to work at the cash register. She told the tribunal that Stone prevented her from doing so by monitoring her closely and sending her to the back of the store when she tried to work in the front.
Stone denied prohibiting AB from working the register, telling the tribunal she chose not to do front-of-store tasks after their Sept. 14 conversation.
Evidence did show, however, that Stone was dissatisfied with AB's performance. An entry in his "manager log" quoted in Prince's decision indicates that he gave her "a verbal warning" for failing to wear her Heirloom shirt during a shift.
The log also confirms that Stone refused to write a reference letter for AB.
"I cannot, in good conscience, give her one," the entry reads, according to the decision.
"Her attitude needs to improve. She does whatever she feels like. She doesn’t follow rules."
The teen resigned from Heirloom on Sept. 25, 2019, writing in a letter did not feel "safe, welcomed or comfortable" in her work environment.
"It's impossible for me to work in an environment where my manager doesn't trust me," her resignation letter read, in part, according to the HRT decision.
For a variety of reasons, Prince found that AB resigned due to a "poisoned" work environment stemming from a lack of comfort working with Stone.
Having concluded that this was the case, the tribunal member turned to the question of whether AB's race and sex contributed to her resignation.
"I want to be clear at the outset that there is nothing inherently discriminatory about a manager asking an employee about a cash shortage," Prince notes in her decision, before explaining why she considers Stone to have singled out AB for negative treatment.
"AB was the only employee spoken to about 'reoccurring cash shortages,'" the decision reads. "Mr. Stone did not speak to any other juice bar employee and had no explanation for why that was the case. There was no evidence that Mr. Stone or Heirloom ascertained whether AB was the only person working at the time the cash shortages were said to have occurred. Rather, the evidence was that AB usually worked with one to four other employees on any given shift."
Moreover, Greer told the tribunal that cash shortages are "common" at the business, and usually come with a "plausible explanation."
"His evidence was that a cash shortage is usually due to a young or inexperienced worker making a mistake or error and that 'the last thing we think is theft,'" Prince writes. "This evidence is in contrast with how Mr. Stone confronted AB. There is no evidence that Mr. Stone investigated a 'plausible explanation' for the cash shortages before or during his conversation with AB. He did not presume that an innocent mistake was made by a young and inexperienced worker. Instead, he confronted AB in an accusatory and harsh manner, insensitive to her age, her inexperience and the power imbalance between them."
The tribunal member found Stone "unable to explain why he singled out AB for scrutiny."
"In the absence of an explanation, Mr. Stone’s heightened suspicion, scrutiny, and monitoring of AB is consistent with persistent and harmful stereotypes that Black people are prone to theft and that Black children are more adult and less innocent than other children," the decision reads.
"I find it more probable than not that these stereotypes were at play in Mr. Stone’s treatment of AB in relation to the apparent cash shortage issue."
For similar reasons, Prince also concluded that stereotypes likely played a role in Stone's refusal to provide a reference letter to AB and his description of her in his manager's log.
The tribunal member noted that if there were persistent issues with the teen worker's performance, other manager's log entries about such issues would have been expected. Instead, there was only one.
In the absence of clearly work-related issues, Prince again concluded that Stone's descriptions of AB and refusal to provide her with a reference letter matched sex- and race-based stereotypes. The tribunal member found it "more probable than not" that such stereotypes played a role in Stone's behaviour.
"In arriving at these findings, I am not concluding that Mr. Stone intended to discriminate against AB," the decision reads. "None of us are immune from operating on unconscious stereotypes, given that such stereotypes continue to seep into our collective psyche."
In addition to denying that their conduct was discriminatory, Stone and Heirloom also argued that AB's complaint had been filed for an improper purpose.
They alleged that CD helped AB file a claim with the HRT for personal financial gain. AB's mother was also employed by Heirloom, working in the restaurant, and she had an ongoing financial dispute with the employer at the time the HRT claim was filed.
Prince concluded there was nothing improper about AB's claim, but she also declined to find that Heirloom advancing such an argument was, itself, discriminatory.
"It is common for the parties involved in a complaint to have negative attitudes towards one another, especially by the hearing stage," the decision reads. "By the time a complaint proceeds to the hearing stage, the parties are on opposite sides of an adversarial process. The respondents’ characterization of CD was in the context of self-represented respondents attempting to raise a defence in an adversarial process."
The tribunal member awarded AB $2,495.77 as compensation for lost wages, calculated on the assumption that the teen would've kept working at Heirloom until it closed temporarily at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Prince also awarded AB $366.21 in costs associated with her HRT filing.
The bulk of the award, $25,000, came in the form of compensation for injury to AB's "dignity, feelings and self-respect."
Stone and Heirloom are "jointly and severally liable" for all of the amounts awarded, a total of $27,861.98. They must also pay pre-judgment interest on the lost wages award and post-judgment interest on all amounts awarded.
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