A former teacher at Bodwell High School has learned a valuable lesson from the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal— it is not discriminatory for an employer to offer child-related benefits to only employees with children.
Although the issue decided by the Tribunal in Nelson v. Bodwell High School, 2016 BCHRT 75 (Nelson) sounds extremely straightforward when framed in this way, the decision itself sheds some much needed light on when employers can, and cannot differentiate between employees under the Human Rights Code with respect to employment benefits.
In Nelson, the employer implemented a “Child Benefit Scheme” under which a full-time employee with more than one year of service and dependent children could receive an annual payment of $1,200 for each dependent child. The purpose of the benefit program was to recognize that raising and educating children was becoming increasingly costly for employees.
The complainant did not have any children and complained to the Tribunal that the benefit program was discriminatory in denying him this additional annual compensation.
In dismissing the complaint, the Tribunal confirmed that differential treatment alone is not enough to establish discrimination under the Human Rights Code.
For differential benefits to be discriminatory, the Tribunal must first consider: (1) the purpose of the benefit (and, in particular, the need the benefit is intended to address and whether it is in harmony with the goals of human rights legislation); and (2) whether the exclusion of certain employees from that benefit is consistent with that purpose. If the exclusion is not related to that purpose and is based on a prohibited ground of discrimination (like family status), then the exclusion is discriminatory.
The Tribunal agreed with the employer in Nelson that the purpose of the employer’s benefit program was to assist employees with increasing child-related costs and that the complainant’s exclusion from the benefit was justified because he had not incurred the costs that the benefit was designed to offset.
In rendering its decision, the Tribunal cited other case examples where distinctions between groups of employees have also been permitted, including:
- the exclusion of non-biological mothers and other parents from maternity benefits because maternity benefits are targeted towards the health and well-being of pregnant women and new biological mothers;
- the exclusion of employees absent from work from compensation tied to the performance of work; and
- the exclusion of employees absent from work from an incentive bonus program.
The Tribunal also cited case examples where the distinctions between groups were found to be discriminatory, including:
- the exclusion of pregnant employees from sickness benefits;
- the exclusion of birth mothers from parental benefits;
- the exclusion of single people from travel benefits; and
- the exclusion of employees over the age of 61 from a retirement allowance.
Although each case will ultimately turn on its own facts (and ought to be assessed in that fashion), employers can take comfort in the fact that they can offer ameliorative employment benefits when the purpose of those benefits is consistent with the spirit of human rights legislation and the distinction that the employer seeks to make between employees is related to that laudable purpose.