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In the Courts: Friendship didn’t dictate B.C. plant’s layoff and recall plans, court finds

Employee’s refusal of offer to return to work condemned wrongful dismissal claim
The B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver

A B.C. judge has rejected a Princeton woman’s wrongful dismissal claim after she was laid off early in the pandemic and left on the sidelines longer than her coworkers.

Karen Blomme had worked at Princeton Standard Pellet Corp. for two decades when she was laid off in 2020, along with many coworkers at the plant that manufactures wood pellets for heating and animal bedding.

According to a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision, the company had a record of high employment retention that was likely due to its well-paying work in a small town.

After being promoted from a union position in 2013, 67-year-old Blomme was one of three plant supervisors. She reported to plant manager Richard White, who reported to then-owner and CEO, Dale Andrews.

The plant laid off some union employees and office employees in spring 2020. Blomme and the other plant supervisors retained their jobs until April 4, 2020, when she and fellow supervisor Richard Mills were laid off.

Blomme said she had contemplated asking to be laid off, considering it might provide savings for the company and potentially stave off closure, and that she’d explored the option with White in a meeting. Blomme claimed she wasn’t conclusive and told White she had to look at her financial situation before asking to be laid off.

She said she determined she couldn’t afford to be laid off and intended to tell White as much. But before she could, Blomme got a call and was laid off.

White testified Blomme told him she wanted to be laid off after speaking to her financial adviser.

Blomme said she’d heard Mills had been called back to work by June 9, 2020, and was upset, believing her seniority should have entitled her to return first and that Mills was recalled first because of his friendship with White.

White testified Blomme wasn’t recalled because the plant wasn’t hiring new press operators and didn’t need her skills for training on that machinery, and that Mills was recalled first because he hadn’t asked to be laid off.

Blomme and White met again that summer. Blomme was upset White believed she’d been asked to be laid off and that she was happy to remain laid off until the end of that month.

She felt she could no longer trust him as a result and she was unsatisfied by an offer to continue her benefits. Blomme was also unsatisfied with assurances she would be reinstated or else given eight weeks of severance by the end of the year if she did not get her job back, feeling instead she no longer had a job to return to.

Her lawyer sent a letter in October demanding damages for wrongful dismissal, arguing the temporary layoff expired by the end of August and that she was officially terminated. The company offered to reinstate her position, but Blomme’s counsel said reinstatement would “involve returning to an atmosphere of hostility, humiliation and embarrassment.”

Blomme said she tried to mitigate the loss of her job by looking for other work but found she wasn’t qualified or else was physically unable to do the work she’d seen posted on job sites. She eventually found part-time work as a cleaner.

Justice Heather MacNaughton said Blomme failed to mitigate the loss of her job by rejecting an offer to return and that there was a reasonable explanation for her not being recalled before Mills.

“Ms. Blomme should have accepted Princeton’s offer of eight weeks’ pay in lieu of notice and re-employment set out in its letter dated October 30, 2020,” MacNaughton said.