Vernon-area produce workers fired for union rumblings

BC Labour Board found two Coldstream workers terminated for engaging in union discussions

Salade Etcetera! Inc., a division of Vegpro International in Coldstream, employees were terminated for their involvement with organizing a union, the BC Labour Board found March 10, 2020. (Vegpro.com)

A Coldstream food production company has been ordered to reinstate two employees after they were fired for attempting to unionize, the British Columbia Labour Board found.

In its March 10 decision, posted recently, the labour board deemed John Scheerschmidt and Leo Esposito, wash line workers at Salade Etcetera!, were terminated, at least in part, for anti-union motivation.

Esposito and Scheerschmidt began approaching colleagues and asking about their interest in joining a union on Feb. 5, 2020. The following day, Esposito was fired and Scheerschmidt’s work accommodation was cancelled. This cancellation resulted in Scheershmidt accepting termination with severance.

However, Salade Etcetera!, a division of Vegpro International, denies firing Esposito for attempting to organize a union and said it didn’t interfere with Scheerschmidt’s work schedule.

The leafy greens production company, which started production in September 2018, ran six days a week and employees worked four 10-hour shifts, but as of Nov. 17, 2019, the company announced it would be running four-day weeks with shift times.

The 29-page decision hears five testimonies and goes into great detail about how shift times were changed after Nov. 17. Scheershmidt had been on an accommodated schedule as recommended by his doctor, but when given his choice of shift and after some juggling, he was presented with the option to pick a scheduled shift or take a severance.

He was left in a situation where no available shifts could accommodate his condition and he took the payout.

The company disputes this and said the scheduling conflicts must have been a misunderstanding as no ultimatum was offered.

Meanwhile, employers noticed a change in Esposito’s attitude. His employer said he was a great worker, but six months ago, he no longer seemed dedicated.

In December 2019, Esposito allegedly yelled at a colleague and the employee said he was “belligerent.”

He was often seen “moping” with his hands in his pockets. Hand hygiene is a critical component in Esposito’s job. Esposito denied having his hands in his pockets for more than around five minutes a day and he used hand sanitizer to prevent cross-contamination.

An incident in February saw conflict arise between Esposito and a colleague after she asked him to remove his hands from his pockets. He claimed his hands weren’t in his pockets, but in his smock, because his hands were cold. He claimed his colleague tried to pull one of his hands from their covering and he cursed at her in response, telling her to “take it up with HR.”

Esposito and Scheersmidt and other workers attended a meeting in Vernon with a local union organizer Feb. 4, 2020. Rumblings of unionizing were already heard back in mid-2019, but on Feb. 5, the two men were seen asking about interest from colleagues. The first coworker was approached in the parking lot the morning of Feb. 5.

Scheerschmidt was fired Feb. 6, 2020, after a five-minute meeting. He was to pick one of two shifts and neither worked for him, so he said he would take the payout. Esposito was called to the office after and was terminated effective immediately, he would receive two weeks’ pay. When he asked why he was being fired, his boss said it’s best not to “get into it.” The adjudicator said in the decision they understood this to mean it was best not to invite further discussion on a decision that’s been made.

Despite the employer’s issues with Esposito, the labour board questioned why there was no formal disciplinary action taken against the man as there was no record of verbal or written warnings.

Instead, it agreed with Union Local 1518. Both men were believed to have been terminated due to their attempts in organizing a union.

The labour board also ordered a union bulletin board be placed in the staff room for a minimum of 180 days. Names, email addresses and phone numbers will be provided by the employer to the union for all production employees in the bargaining unit.

No monetary damages for lost wages and benefits were awarded.

READ MORE: Vernon homeless camp destroyed by fire

READ MORE: Schools deliver 600 laptops to Vernon students


@caitleerach
Caitlin.clow@vernonmorningstar.com

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