'Water and fire' comment meant to intimidate manager was just cause for dismissal

Suspended employee claimed comment was meant to warn 'wicked' employer of Biblical consequences
|employmentlawtoday.com|Last Updated: 08/08/2012

An Ontario employer had just cause to dismiss a religious employee who made a threatening comment about consequences when she was suspended, an arbitrator has ruled.

The employee was a machine operator at the Toronto plant of Plastipak Industries, a manufacturer of rigid plastic packaging based in Boucherville, Que. She had been hired in 1999.

On Jan. 31, 2012, the employee packed 20 boxes of defective product for shipment. She didn’t follow standard procedures by checking every fifth box to ensure the product was satisfactory, so she was suspended for five days. Plastipak issued the suspension because the employee had previously been suspended twice for quality control problems.

The employee was upset at her suspension and asked to speak to the plant manager. In a loud voice, she told the manager “the first element to attack is water — the next is fire.” She also stated that God was watching over her. A year earlier, the plant had been flooded when a pipe burst and caused serious damage to the facility, so the manager took the employee’s comment as a threat and called the police.

The police agreed the employee’s comment was a threat but didn’t press charges. The employee claimed she didn’t intend any threat, but that she was simply religious and believed that bad things happened to wicked people. However, Plastipak told the employee to stay at home while it investigated the situation, and the employee responded by saying there was nothing wrong with her comment and to remember that God was watching. A union steward tried to get the employee to apologize for the comment, but the employee refused. On Feb. 10, 2012, Plastipak terminated the employee’s employment for issuing threats, after another refusal to apologize.

The arbitrator found that even if the employee didn’t intend the comments to be threatening, she specifically sought out the plant manager in an angry fashion to hint that harm would come to her and the plant because of “wickedness.” The comments were “made in an attempt to intimidate (the plant manager) into reconsidering the five day suspension just imposed,” said the arbitrator. The arbitrator characterized the employee as presenting herself as “a modern day prophet simply issuing a warning” when she really was trying to scare the manager.

The arbitrator also found that the employee’s refusal to apologize showed the comments weren’t simply “an angry outburst” and it showed a failure to consider the effects of her comments and accept the authority of the plant manager, which was particularly concerning given her record of previous discipline. Since Ontario’s Bill 168 required employers to address workplace violence and threats quickly and firmly, termination was a reasonable action for Plastipak to take, said the arbitrator.

For more information see:

U.S.W. v. Plastipak Industries Inc., 2012 CarswellOnt 7659 (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

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