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Employment & Labour

Human rights passion powers employment lawyer Zdriluk

An abiding interest in people combined with a background in human rights is what inspires Hamilton employment lawyer Jennifer Zdriluk.

“I think, quite frankly, that human relationships and dynamics are what makes this world function,” the partner with Ross & McBride, a Hamilton firm that deals in a variety of legal disciplines, tells “Employment can be very personal. Sometimes you need to advocate for people who have very personal issues or relationships that need assistance. Vulnerable people need a voice.”

Zdriluk’s interest in the area was piqued as a student when she took many classes focused on domestic and international constitutional and human rights issues. As a student, she worked for a professor of human rights law.

Zdriluk also worked for Osgoode Hall Law School’s Innocence Project, which seeks exonerations for the wrongfully convicted, saying she was drawn to its concern for individual rights and freedoms.

She contemplated articling for the province’s human rights tribunal, but instead opted to “try my hand at private practice,” she says.

“The area most focused on those issues is employment law. That’s how I landed here."

Shortly after Zdriluk was called to the bar in 2003, Ontario’s human rights system underwent an overhaul, which resulted in her being able to devote even more of her practice to domestic and human rights issues.

Zdriluk regularly appears before the courts, human rights tribunals, arbitrators, the labour board and other administrative tribunals on employer and employee matters. 

In many of the human rights cases she handles, she says ignorance, rather than maliciousness, is the culprit.

“It’s not always a desire to hurt, it’s an inability to understand,” Zdriluk says. “And sometimes, in the case of the plaintiff, an inability to communicate in a way that ensures they’re being heard.”

The most common violations are on the grounds of a disability.

“Either there is a misunderstanding,” she says, “or the employer believes the individual can’t be accommodated or doesn't want to try, or the employee wants to be accommodated in a way that’s not reasonable.”

Zdriluk says one of her clients, who had been in a managerial position for 15 years before taking time off to receive treatment for depression, was honest with the employer about her situation. But when she was cleared by their doctor to return to work without restriction, the company balked, not so much at the return, but at the resumption of her previous position, which was high stress, and related to issues of safety and service.  

“We’re afraid you’ll have a breakdown again,” they told her client.

“It’s understandable, but quite frankly, it’s not reasonable,” Zdriluk says.  

Along with her practice, Zdriluk volunteers with Pro Bono Ontario’s education program, which defends the rights of students.

Most of these cases are related to disability, particularly those that affect behaviour.  

“One of my clients has a daughter in kindergarten with autism and associated diseases that cause her to be aggressive,” Zdriluk says. The school has struggled to deal with the girl’s behaviour, and eventually suspended her.

“There has to be a way to deal with both the parents' concern to keep their kid in school, and the school’s concern not to have their teachers bitten, she says.

In these situations, Zdriluk often acts as an advocate for the family, and as a facilitator between parents, school and other relevant parties. That said, formal legal action is not off the table.

“I believe it’s important for the parties to know that we won’t hesitate to litigate,” she says. “I make sure my clients know that when we need to litigate I’m here to help them.”

That approach informs not just her pro-bono work, but also her practice where she represents a range of people, from a woman who makes $6,000 a year at her part-time job to CEOs and six-figure-salary executives.

“It’s the same thing,” she says. “You don’t treat it any differently. Their money is just as important to them, and their pride.”

Along with employees, Zdriluk also represents employers, regularly advising on matters dealing with employment relations, contracts, workplace policies, privacy issues, termination, human rights, fiduciary issues and statutory requirements.

She says that while the legal principles in employment law are quite routine, there is great variation in cases and clients.

“The people must be what interests you in your day-to-day work because that’s what it’s about. And access to justice. That was never off the table for me.”

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