The firm gratefully acknowledges the contribution to this post by articling student Zachary Rodgers.

The Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), represented by Wassim Garzouzi, recently scored a major victory for the privacy rights of workers across Canada. On December 9, 2019, Arbitrator Susan Ashley affirmed that employers in Canada cannot unilaterally impose random drug and alcohol testing on its unionized employees, despite the legalization of cannabis and the uniquely dangerous nature of the work in question.

The employer in this case, a helicopter company providing passenger transport to offshore oil operations, sought to initiate random drug and alcohol testing of its helicopter pilots (and other employees in safety sensitive positions) following the legalization of cannabis in Canada. At the time, the employer already had a robust drug and alcohol policy in place that allowed it to test employees in safety sensitive positions if there was reasonable cause to suspect the employee was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The Union took no issue with “for cause” testing. The only issue at arbitration was whether the employer could force employees to submit to drug and alcohol testing at random (i.e. without cause).

The Union successfully argued that Canadian courts and arbitrators have long rejected random testing as an unreasonable violation of individual privacy rights. In Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that even in workplaces where safety is paramount, random testing is too great an infringement on employee privacy rights if there is no existing and pervasive problem of drug and alcohol use in the workplace.

Arbitrator Ashley rejected the employer’s argument that the legalization of cannabis in Canada had changed the legal landscape. She equally rejected the employer’s position that the uniquely dangerous work of flying helicopters offshore justified the violation of employees’ privacy rights. Significantly, the arbitrator found that, although oral swab testing is less invasive than other methods of drug testing, it still amounts to “an unjustified affront to the dignity and privacy rights of the affected employees.”

This award, in favour of the Union, is one of the first post-legalization decisions in Canada that affirms the Canadian model, which requires employers to demonstrate an existing and pervasive alcohol or drug problem in the workplace before random testing can be justified. Importantly, employers cannot rely on the legalization of cannabis to justify upending the status quo on drug testing in Canadian workplaces.

RavenLaw congratulates OPEIU on its hard-fought and successful defence of employee privacy rights in Canada.