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Vancouver airline pandemic job loss yields $168,609 court award

Judge said it was unreasonable for a "devastated" employee to expect employee to be looking for work while she was winding down its Vancouver operations before being laid off
Cathay Pacific lost a suit brought by a Vancouver manager terminated in the pandemic

B.C. Supreme court has awarded a Vancouver woman who lost her job with Cathay Pacific Airways due to pandemic cutbacks $168,609 in damages.

Justice Gary Weatherill’s May 26 decision said Frances Turcic Okano, 61, was employed full-time by the airline for almost 35 years. She spent her career in Cathay’s sales and customer service departments, rising through the ranks from a front line reservations agent to manager of the airline’s Vancouver Global Centre where she worked for the past 25 years. 

“She was the most senior person in her business unit, with budgeting and hiring/firing responsibilities,” Weatherill said. “She reported directly to the defendant’s head office in Hong Kong.”

Okano’s termination came as the airline industry experienced a severe downturn in the pandemic as passenger flights were restricted.

Weatherill said Cathay’s monthly passenger numbers from March to December 2020 were less than one per cent of what they had been for the same months the previous year.

In response, Cathay introduced several measures to continue operations and reduce the need for mass employee terminations. This included special leaves and reduced salaries.

However, on Oct. 13, 2020, Cathay told Okano it was closing the Vancouver centre and her employment was terminated, effective Dec. 11, 2020.  During that period, Cathay tasked Okano to handle the transfer of the centre’s operations to its Manila, Philippines office, train the Manila staff, close the Vancouver centre and terminate the 71 employees whom she supervised there.

She received a three-month severance package.

Okano filed a lawsuit alleging she was entitled to unpaid wages for the special leave periods as well as for other damages.

The airline said they were not unpaid wages but, rather, reductions as part of pandemic mitigation measures she agreed to.

Cathay added that Okano had failed to mitigate her losses by seeking new employment.

Wetherill said it was clear Okano loved her job and was devastated to lose it. Still, Okano “devotedly and successfully” managed the closure of the Vancouver operations, he said.

“I find that it is unreasonable to expect the plaintiff to have been proactively searching for a new job at that time,” the judge said.

Okano had created a resumé and looking for a job in 2021.

Weatherill said courts have been clear that, absent exceptional circumstances, the upper limit for reasonable notice is 24 months.

"In my view, given the plaintiff’s age, length of service, and management status with the defendant, this is an appropriate case for the upper limit of 24 months’ notice,” Weatherill said.

Okano was also awarded special damages of $1,784.