Teressa Prentice

A Turn at the Table

Since 1998, PEA member Teressa Prentice has represented members of the Hospital Employees Union in grievances. In 2023, it was her turn to grieve—and earn a victory for union members everywhere.

Words by Jessica Natale Woollard Photos by Jeff Topham

Working for a union while also being in a union makes for sophisticated members who deeply understand the rights of employees and responsibilities of the employer.

That’s the situation for Teressa Prentice and her colleagues who work for the Hospital Employees Union (HEU). By day, they represent HEU members, helping them understand the collective agreement and supporting them at the table with the Employer. At the same time, 200 HEU employees—including those with roles in administration, accounting, communications, payroll, and servicing—are members of the Hospital Employees’ Staff Union (HESU) chapter of the Professional Employees Association (PEA).

Surrey-based Prentice joined HEU in 1998 and moved through various labour relations positions (called service representatives). Today, she’s a Director of Membership Services for the region covering from Burnaby to Hope. She served two years on PEA’s HESU chapter executive and PEA’s provincial executive as a member at large, roles that have enabled her to further hone her understanding of unionism and worker rights.

In 2019, after two decades of supporting courageous members at the grievance table, it was her turn to grieve. She had observed the Employer acting in a way she understood to be contrary to the HESU–PEA collective agreement. It was time to “walk the talk. I needed to stand up [and file a grievance],” says Prentice. “If I didn’t stand up, what was that saying to the rest of the membership?”

Supported by the PEA—and inspired by hundreds of grievers she had represented over the years—she grieved, and won.

“The strength of the union comes from the solidarity between one another. You’ll have a lot more of that if people stand together.”

The Grievance

In February 2019, HEU posted a job for one of five Director of Membership Services positions. Prentice was one of two shortlisted candidates, both of which were current HEU employees, with Prentice being the most senior. She had 21 years at HEU, more than twice the other candidate’s seniority.

Despite her years of service, Prentice was not offered the position.

She recognized immediately the job selection process was flawed. It seemed the Employer did not have a process to adjudicate how efficient candidates are as employees, as required in the collective agreement; instead, the Employer gave applicants equal efficiency scores of five out of five.

The Employer had not followed Article 6.02 of the collective agreement, which stated the following:

The promotion, transfer, demotion or release of Directors and Team Leaders shall be based on efficiency and qualifications (including initiative), and where such requirements are considered equal, seniority shall be the defining factor.

The article also stated:

However, where two (2) or more Employees have indicated their interest in the same promotion or transfer, then the Employee with the most seniority shall be given the promotion or transfer, provided they have the ability to perform the job.

Essentially, according to the collective agreement, the Employer must consider both qualifications and efficiency when evaluating candidates, and if all things are equal between candidates, then seniority would be used as a determining factor.

But that isn’t what happened.

The job was offered to the other candidate, who had half Prentice’s seniority. Given her experience, education, and performance record, Prentice believed she should have been considered relatively equal to the other candidate and therefore awarded the position based on seniority.

Now, Prentice is a sophisticated union member. She reviewed the results of the job selection process, as provided by the Employer, and what she saw did not persuade her that the Employer had followed Article 6.02.

“I knew the relevant case law and the decisions that support my position,” she explains, noting that she has often represented HEU members at job selection hearings related to the kind of issue she was experiencing.

In September 2019, the PEA filed a grievance, alleging the Employer had acted contrary to Article 6.02 in not awarding Prentice, the more senior and relatively equal candidate, the position of Director of Membership Services.

Preparing for Arbitration

Due to COVID-19 and various extraordinary circumstances, the arbitration hearing did not take place until May 2023, nearly four years after the grievance was filed.

The delays gave Prentice and her PEA-assigned counsel, Sherry Shir, time to prepare a meticulous argument.

Among her colleagues, Prentice is known to be a detail-oriented person with encyclopedic institutional knowledge. She has binders of records amassed over two decades with the HEU, records that contain her work portfolio and personal career files, including job evaluations.

She is also known as someone who frequently takes on complex grievances, ones that require lengthy arbitration hearings and scrupulous review of statutes and regulations.

“I can be pretty tough,” Prentice admits. “I can be pretty picky with respect to the quality of work that I expect of my team.”

Shir was a perfect fit for Prentice. The two combed through countless files and precedent cases with mutual enthusiasm and dedication.

“I’ve worked with a lot of lawyers,” Prentice says, “but I’ve never had a lawyer that has been as focused on a case as [Shir] was. She was so thorough in all of the details and all of her work; she knew my case inside and out.”

Throughout the planning process, the duo learned from each other.

“[Shir] said to me at the end that she so enjoyed working with me because there was so much we taught one another,” Prentice remembers. “For her, she learned about our collective agreement, and for me, what I gained from her is just watching her skill set in action.”

The Decision

After nearly four years, the three-day arbitration took place in May 2023.

After hearing from both sides, the arbitrator found that the HEU job selection process was fundamentally flawed. The award hung on the fact that the collective agreement states the Employer must consider qualifications and efficiency, and the Employer admitted they did not measure efficiency in the job selection process. Prentice and the PEA were granted the arbitration award.

When the grievance was originally filed, the award sought was to place Prentice in the desired position; however, in 2021, she had been awarded another of the five Director of Membership Services positions. Instead, the PEA sought monetary damages for the wages and benefits Prentice would have earned as the successful candidate. The arbiter awarded that the Employer pay 50% of the sum sought.

The award is a win not just for Prentice, HESU, and PEA but also for unions everywhere: it is precedent-setting and can be used to support union arbitrations across the country for years to come.

For PEA’s HESU chapter, the award ensures that the Employer follows the language in the collective agreement.

In Solidarity

Always thinking of her HEU members, Prentice recognizes that her experience of grieving has increased her empathy for the HEU members she supports in her work.

“It’s the membership that I’m accountable to,” she explains. “And I’m part of a membership, too. How could I, as a service representative, tell members they need to find the courage to file a grievance if I can’t even do it myself?’ she asks.

The answer lies in solidarity. “You have to look at not what’s good for me, but what’s good for the membership as a whole,” she continues.

“The strength of the union comes from the solidarity between one another. You’ll have a lot more of that if people stand together.”