Sunnybrook Hospital pledged to ‘listen’ to employees about discrimination. Two workers say they’ve been speaking out about racism for years — and nothing has been done

These types of stories continue to emerge from many organizations:

Angela Lindow, a part-time worker at Sunnybrook Hospital, received a company-wide email in June after George Floyd’s killing and the resulting racial unrest. The hospital was committing to “address inequity,” “eliminate racism,” and “listen.” She thought, “Listen? We’ve been right here for years.”

Lindow and 11 other racialized Sunnybrook employees in the communications department, which co-ordinates calls made to the hospital and activates emergency response teams by managing codes, first made allegations of systemic racism in their hospital department in January 2016. Some have still been fighting through multiple channels to get a satisfying response from the hospital.

The original allegations pointed to instances of discrimination in hiring decisions, discrimination in decisions to reorganize shifts, changes that seemed to remove racialized staff from visitor-facing positions to less visible work locations and unequal accommodation and treatment between white staff and racialized staff.

The workers brought these complaints to management, and a five-month external investigation concluded that each claim was “unsubstantiated” with no further explanation in the summary provided to them.

After the investigation concluded, the staff filed claims with the Human Rights Tribunal in July 2016. This fall, they are expected to have a summary hearing. From there, it will be decided if the applicants have enough evidence to move on to a full hearing.

Emily Shepherd, a lawyer who works at Human Rights Legal Support Centre which is representing Lindow, said generally, racial discrimination and systemic racism cases can be difficult to prove because the instances, often, are not overt. It’s not uncommon for complex cases like this to take a long time to go through the process, Shepherd said.

The remaining complainants are hoping to receive monetary compensation for pain, suffering and lost wages, as well as have the hospital form an anti-racism department and new practices for dealing with discrimination cases.

The Star asked Sunnybrook about the original 19 allegations, the internal investigation and the current Human Rights Tribunal cases. The hospital responded with a written statement that said Sunnybrook is following the tribunal’s process and that the original complaints “were addressed in accordance with the hospital’s policies.”

The statement went on to say that “Sunnybrook has a number of policies specific to ensuring a safe and respectful work environment and one that is free from harassment, discrimination and violence. Sunnybrook takes any allegation of this nature seriously.”

Like many organizations, Sunnybrook has internally made commitments to address racism and diversity issues within the hospital, but Lindow is still disappointed, especially with the work racialized staff have contributed throughout this pandemic. She felt dismissed when these complaints were originally filed and again now, while trying to have the hospital revisit the issue.

Janet Getten, who has worked at Sunnybrook since 1989, was one of the complainants. She has found the process of trying to be heard demoralizing.

Despite waiting for years for this fall’s hearing, Lindow and Getten, as well as some of the others they say, still feel the need to pursue it.

“I want the hospital to acknowledge that we were treated badly,” Lindow said. Especially during a time where COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black and brown people, she says it’s all the more important for the hospital internally to address cases of inequality.

Getten had nothing but positive things to say about the quality of care Sunnybrook has the capacity for, but emphasized that the hospital should still address how she, and other racialized staff, were treated.

“Amazing people work at this hospital,” Getten said. “But they’re not always treated fairly.”

For Lindow this is true not only for them as staff, but the patient care. “This is a structural, systemic issue” and she wonders if racialized staff is treated like this, how can racialized patients feel “confident” that they will “receive equal treatment” from the hospital.

“The tone is set from the top. The CEOs, the executives,” Lindow said. “This was a huge case that [the hospital] continues to ignore.”

Much of the complaints from 2016 had to do with staff being passed over for new positions for which they were qualified, based on documents reviewed by the Star.

As a unionized job, current employees with seniority and qualifications can often change roles with ease. Four of the complaints involved racialized staff members who were passed over for new roles and instead either external applicants or applicants with lower seniority, who were white, were hired.

In 2015, Getten applied for a position at St. John’s campus as a front desk operator. A typing test requirement was added, which Lindow and Getten say was not usual for internal applicants given the experience they already had within the department. Getten had been working at Sunnybrook for over 20 years at that point, and said in her time she had trained other staff and covered for section leaders.

Despite her experience, Getten’s typing score was below what was listed as required in the posting and she was not granted an interview at all. Instead, the job was given to a recently hired white co-worker. The same white co-worker was also mentioned another time in the complaints, when management granted her a position over a racialized man, who successfully grieved the seniority issue with the union and was given the position.

A former section leader in the department who spoke with the Star under the condition of anonymity, said that he had conversations with the hiring manager and shared Getten’s typing ability and practice test scores with the manager. Afterwards, the job was posted with a requirement that was out of Getten’s range.

Getten has since transferred to another campus at Sunnybrook, but the circumstances around losing out on that last job due to typing ability “still hurts,” she said.

The same section leader, who is a white man, was originally hired externally as a call operator. When he applied for the section leader position, he said the same manager cited in the complaint about the typing requirement gave him the opportunity to write his own job description for the role, and told him to include criteria that only he could meet. By doing this, it would result in excluding current staff with seniority from being successful at applying, including Lindow who was also interested in the role.

Several attempts by the Star to reach the manager in question went unanswered.

In addition to this instance, Lindow alleges in the Human Rights Tribunal claim that she was passed over for another management position in 2015. Lindow started working at Sunnybrook after being a stay-at-home mother for a number of years since it was walking distance from home and would be a path to re-enter the workforce. She applied for a management position after working as a part-time operator for a year and with previous experience working in emergency management as well as the anti-racism secretariat for the Ontario government. An external white male applicant was hired instead.

In 2015 under the new management, shift times were changed, making the overnight shifts start at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. rather than 11 p.m., so that there would be more overlap between operators in the morning. While shift changes are said to align with call volume and help mitigate absences, Lindow says that since much of the staff is older racialized women who do not drive, these times posed safety issues for them and would ultimately impact whether they could stay with the job. She also says the shift changes were only implemented at the Bayview campus, not other campuses where staff was predominately white.

Another staff person with over 25 years of experience had her schedule changed and was required to work every weekend, rather than alternating weekends. The employee worked a second job, and as a result of the new schedule, had to change her work status from permanent part-time to casual in order to maintain both jobs, which made her lose out on seniority and pension contributions, the original claim alleges.

Combined, these work changes and lack of job mobility felt like an attempt to force out racialized employees while hiring more white staff in the department, Lindow said, which is why they filed complaints as a group.

Thinking back to hearing that the claims were unsubstantiated after the external investigation, Lindow said, “At the end of the day, you had 12 racialized people go to their white manager and say, something’s amiss here. We’re feeling the weight of discrimination. All white people investigate and come back and say, there’s nothing to see here.”

“You really do hope that they would have looked at it and said, ‘All of this, all of these things are happening. Let’s pick this up and really look into it because 19 of these things happened,’” Getten said. “How is it possible to find that it was their opinion or decision that none of these things happened?”

Lindow continued, “If management treats us like this, how is a Black patient supposed to feel confident?”

Eight of the staffers including Lindow and Getten took the cases to the Human Rights Tribunal in July 2016. Two complainants have since abandoned their cases, so as of now, six continue to await a hearing.

When going through the Tribunal process, cases first go through a summary hearing stage, which is the stage this case is awaiting in the fall. This is when the Tribunal hears some points of the case and decides whether to move forward with a full hearing where evidence will be heard in detail.

Shepherd, the lawyer familiar with Lindow and Getten’s tribunal claim, said for cases of systemic discrimination, a chance to present all the evidence is best.

“Dismissing it at that early stage actually, for cases with those types of allegations, often isn’t appropriate, because it doesn’t give the tribunal [the opportunity] to look at the full picture,” she said. “And often you need the full picture to really assess these kinds of allegations.”

Source: Sunnybrook Hospital pledged to ‘listen’ to employees about discrimination. Two workers say they’ve been speaking out about racism for years — and nothing has been done