My pay was trimmed, but my workload wasn’t

Date: Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Publication: The Globe & Mail
THE QUESTION: My company went through a reorganization last year. Through the process my job was reclassified from a manager to a co-ordinator and the pay was reduced. It has been one year and I do not have a revised job description. As far as workload goes, there was a minor switch but overall the responsibilities are the same. Can they do this?
THE ANSWER: Your employer is prohibited from adversely changing your job in any significant way. If your employer does so, this gives you the right to a legal claim referred to as a constructive dismissal. In essence, it permits you to treat the employment relationship as over, leave work, and then sue for severance as if you were fired. Here are some examples:

Changed hours of work

If a specific shift or certain hours have become customary, your employer cannot make any real change without your consent. In a recent Ontario case, a judge determined that an employee was constructively dismissed because, after nine years of working only rotating shifts, his company suddenly forced him to work nights.

Reduction in compensation

A pay cut, sometimes even a minor one, may amount to a constructive dismissal. In one of my cases, the employee was asked to work an extra three hours each week, but without any additional pay. Over the course of one year, this was an extra 156 hours. Although his salary was not technically “reduced,” his hourly compensation clearly declined and his employer received more value for the same cost. If a judge agrees that this was a material change to his compensation, his ex-employer will have to pay damages.
Many other forms of pay cuts are not allowed. Court cases show that any reduction of more than 10 per cent of your total compensation generally cannot be imposed. Anything less may have to be accepted, in some circumstances.

Changed responsibilities

Unless your employment contract states otherwise, you are hired for a defined job and this cannot be changed without your consent. Because employers cannot “force” new duties on you, usually these occur over time and it is often by design. However, whether a job gradually changes or is changed overnight will seldom matter. The courts will ask whether the job you are performing is what you were hired to do.

Changed location

These “commuter” cases are some of my favourites. They arise when you are asked to transfer to a different place of work. It is usually not a problem unless longer commute times are involved. Only then will you likely complain. If that commute is materially longer, you cannot be compelled to go.
In an interesting twist, I had a case last year where an employee working remotely for years was suddenly asked to return to work. I argued that this was a pretext to fire him, because the employer had no real intention of having him do his job at the workplace – or even the space for him to work. I called its bluff, and it settled the case, generously. It knew it could not force the employee to return after letting him work from home for so long.
However, as is often the case in workplace law, there is an exception when it comes to changes. An employer is permitted to make a substantial job change if your employment contract permits it, or if you are given reasonable advance notice. Even if either of these exceptions do not apply, when you do not protest against the change, you are usually deemed to accept it.
This is what appears to have happened to you, and it is a classic example of the “use it or lose it” principle. By your own inactivity in not protesting against the changes to your salary and job, you may have lost the chance to complain.