A central Newfoundland and Labrador woman who was dismissed from her position without cause is speaking out against what happened to her at the College of the North Atlantic (CNA).
“There’s cause for concern here,” Karen Antle of Grand Falls-Windsor said of the publicly funded institution.
“They basically have given me a year off with pay. Really, there’s been no due process. … I just think it’s unethical conduct for a public entity.”
Antle said the college has gotten rid of good, hard-working people in positions that are hard to fill, while ignoring what she sees as ongoing dysfunction in the college’s operations.
'I could be working'
“When this is government money, and particularly in Newfoundland now, where we’re operating in the red and every penny counts, people should be outraged that I am given all this money to stay home for a year, when I didn’t want to do that and I could be out working,” Antle said.
"I just think it’s unethical conduct for a public entity."
Antle worked at the college for almost 20 years, and in March 2019 took on the role of director of student success, which included managing an academic readiness program for Indigenous students. Her work before that included 10 years as team lead for accessibility services.
“In my near 20 years at CNA, my work ethic, integrity and ability to do the job had never been questioned. I gave the job everything I had, and I believe I was respected for that,” Antle said.
She said the position she accepted took more than a year to fill, and she stipulated she would only take it if she could try it out for a year, as she was nervous about what she saw as a history of instability at CNA headquarters.
Initially, Antle told The Telegram, her relationship with her supervisor was good and his feedback suggested he was pleased with her work.
“Not that long ago, he went out of his way to keep me in this job,” Antle said.
But things went south after a meeting in which she felt he was disrespectful to her.
Antle said she subsequently spoke up about that, and he appeared resistant to her attempts to meet and discuss the project she was in charge of, which had outside funding.
In September, she thought she was finally going to a meeting to discuss the work.
"It’s unconscionable what I have been through."
Her supervisor and a human resources representative were at the meeting. Her supervisor read the dismissal letter and got up and walked out, said Antle, who was stunned by the sudden turn of events.
Since losing her job — for which she was paid 53 weeks’ salary plus seven weeks’ vacation time and salary scale step increases — Antle said she has been contacted by about 25 coworkers who can’t believe how she was treated.
“Everyone is grieving a tremendous loss. Take care of yourself,” said one message.
“Everyone is still in shock here as I expect you are as well. It’s really disheartening. You have so much drive and vision and unfortunately HQ doesn’t know how to appreciate that,” said another.
“It’s unconscionable what I have been through,” Antle said.
Antle wrote to Premier Andrew Furey and Education Minister Tom Osborne, as well as the chair of the college’s board of directors. She is seeking a review and amending of the labour law allowing dismissals without cause, as she said it’s a tool the college is misusing without being accountable.
Replying for himself and the premier, Osborne referred Antle to the Department of Immigration Skills and Labour to pursue her points regarding amendments to the Labour Standards Act.
He also pointed out that the College Act 1996 gives CNA the right to govern its organization, administration and operation, including human resources matters.
CNA board chair Alastair O’Rielly, in his response to Antle, said he would not be involved in details of individual HR matters.
“However, I am aware of the termination of your employment without cause and that it was carried out in accordance with relevant human resource policies,” he wrote, wishing her luck in future endeavours.
“Nobody cares and it’s just unconscionable,” Antle said of the responses.
She said what happened to her goes against the goal of bringing more diversity to government jobs — she brings her Indigenous heritage as well as a female perspective to the diversity table.
Her concern is that CNA is using dismissals without cause as an excuse to ignore systemic problems.
“The college can be a disrespectful and intimidating place to work for many people, and headquarters is known to be an especially toxic environment to work in,” Antle said in her letter to Furey.
“But it can also be a great place to work if you are able to avoid the few who hold all the power and use it as a tool of intimidation and fear or if you are willing to avoid challenging the status quo.”
Antle, who lost union protection when she took on her new role — leaving her without due process — said she spent long days at her dining room table after people were sent home to work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said she’d never had her work decisions questioned and, in a letter to CNA president Liz Kidd, she noted Kidd had sent her a handwritten note, mid-COVID-19 crisis, thanking her for her “hard work and dedication.”
College communications manager Michelle Barry told The Telegram the institution “will not comment on any human resources matters concerning any current or former employees.”
As well, this Telegram reporter was advised in an email from the college’s lawyer to “cease and desist” contacting Antle’s supervisor — who was asked for comment as an opportunity to give his side of the story — or any other employees in connection with the particular matter.
In an access to information request filed by Antle, the college replied that since 2012, 13 people have been dismissed without cause. Based on average in lieu amounts cited in the response, the college seems to have spent more than $1.1 million on salaries paid to those dismissed without cause.
All were longtime employees, having from 11 to more than 16 years’ service.
Memorial University has terminated 55 positions without cause since 2013 — 45 of them since 2016.
Some, however, may have found alternate employment within the university, a response from MUN said.
Problems at CNA have made headlines in recent years.
In 2017, then-Advanced Education Minister Gerry Byrne, quoted in a Telegram story about looming cuts at CNA due to budget constraints, noted a comprehensive review found budgetary and course delivery concerns, but also at that time there were human resources functions failing employees and hundreds of grievances unresolved in the system.
The review found a financial operating situation that, if continued, would have left the college in an unsustainable and unstable position.
A modernization plan ensued with new college leadership and other changes designed to fix human resources, administrative and other key issues flagged in the report.
But Antle said what happened to her shows CNA dysfunction is unresolved.
Based on CNA’s information on dismissed-without-cause cases since 2012, there are two managers, on average, let go each year without cause, and paid salaries in lieu, Antle noted.
“Who’s accountable for that?” she asked.
“From my perspective, it does beg the question: is there a problem with the college’s HR process? Is there a problem with their succession planning and how they support new managers? Is there a problem with the organization at the executive level? Is there some organizational instability there? There’s got to be a reason. … And you’re doing it by saying it’s without cause. Essentially, what that means is you have no recourse. You can’t come back and say, ‘You can’t fire me,’ because they haven’t given you a reason.”
She said it’s different from private business, where, even if you don’t agree with such decisions, they aren’t funded by the public purse.
“It is unconscionable that in 2020, a woman in a leadership position with the expectation of a respectful workplace, can be dismissed and there is no due process to challenge the decision,” Antle said. “I am sharing my story to assure the more than 25 colleagues who have sent me messages of support that I will leave no stone unturned to right this wrong.”
CNA is a Crown agency and has 17 campus locations throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, and one in Qatar in the Middle East.
Barb Sweet is an enterprise reporter in St. John’s.