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I work for a hospital in Alberta, Canada.

As part of our job, we're required to use a walkie-talkie-like device called a Vocera Badge. Over the course of the last few years that we've been using them, we've lost 5 badges, and they cost about $500 each.

Recently we got a new batch of the latest model to replace our old ones and were informed by management that if any of us lose one, we'll be responsible for the cost of replacing it.

Is it legal for an employer to require the use of equipment and make employees financially responsible for it?

  • 12
    Interesting question: Think of an extreme example: suppose you are a driver or a pilot and you have an at-fault accident. The value of the damaged vehicle and cargo could easily be well into the millions of dollars. Obviously there is some point at which the employer either buys insurance or "self-insures" against employee mistakes. Of course, both the employer and insurer are entitled to implement risk-mitigation strategies. I wonder if subjecting employees to a financial penalty for loss can legally be part of those strategies. – feetwet Jul 21 '15 at 23:50
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    It is probably legal for an employer to make an empty threat. – emory Jul 22 '15 at 14:41
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Possibly

I am Australian so I am not familiar with Albertan labour law but I have done a little research and the underlying common law principles are similar.

I will assume that you are covered by Albertan law and not the Canada Labour Code.

The next part of the answer is based on A Guide to Rights and Responsibilities in Alberta Workplaces.

  • First, if you lost it they would need to ask you to pay for it, they could not deduct it from your pay without a garnishee order (p. 10).

  • Second, if the device is safety equipment, and it is certainly arguable that it is, then it is the employee's responsibility to use it and the employer's responsibility to keep it in safe working order; this would include replacing it if it were lost (p. 12).

The common law position depends on a) the contract and b) if any negligence were involved.

Contract

What does your current employment contract say about your use of the employer's equipment generally and this item in particular? If it says something then, unless it is an illegal term, that is what happens. If it is silent, then it turns on the particular circumstances.

Also, a contract cannot be changed unilaterally, if they are trying to introduce a new term then you have to agree to it; remembering that there may be consequences to taking a stand against your employer, you should say that you do not agree - this removes the risk that the employer could argue that there was tacit agreement.

Negligence

In order to establish negligence as a Cause of Action under the law of torts, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant:

  1. had a duty to the plaintiff, as an employee this is virtually a given;
  2. breached that duty by failing to conform to the required standard of conduct (generally the standard of a reasonable person), this would depend on the circumstances of the loss or damage. You have to take reasonable care of the equipment - this is not a subjective standard, you need to do everything that a person in your position can do to protect the equipment from loss or damage;
  3. the negligent conduct was, in law, the cause of the harm to the plaintiff. This has to do with the "proximity" of the harm, if for example the device needed a battery change and you took it to a technician who damaged the item in changing the battery then your actions are not proximate to the loss; and
  4. the plaintiff was, in fact, harmed or damaged. Well, if it is lost or damaged this is pretty unarguable.

So, if you take reasonable care of the device and, notwithstanding, it is lost or damaged then you would not be liable for negligence ... probably.

Talk to your union rep; this is exactly the sort of stuff that they are there to sort out.

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    According to this HR Info Desk article by a Canadian lawyer, Canadian law would seem to require the loss or damage to be caused intentionally or by gross negligence for a pay deduction to be imposed unilaterally. Simple negligence is insufficient. The article states the company could sue the employee instead, but it would apparently have to prove basically the same elements. And the article would seem to suggest that it is possible to use a different rule if agreed to in an employment contract. Thus it agrees w/DaleM's analysis. – daffy Jul 22 '15 at 1:58
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    What, if anything, prevents them from simply threatening to fire you if you don't pay for it? – Random832 Jul 22 '15 at 13:48
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    @Random832 I should have mentioned this in the question, but I'm unionized. I can see the union taking issue with that, or at least I hope they would given how much I pay them. – Carcigenicate Jul 22 '15 at 14:03
  • @Random832 in Canada, I don't know, in Australia that would be unfair dismissal and would leave the employee with remedies like reinstatement and compensation and the employer liable to be fined. However, as I pointed out there are risks if the employer were more subtle in their lawbreaking. – Dale M Jul 22 '15 at 20:42

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