An Alberta woman battling a terminal form of blood cancer is suing Starbucks Canada, alleging wrongful termination.
Lisa Pedersen, a single mother of three, says she was fired from her job in May 2021 for allegedly violating the multibillion-dollar coffee chain’s COVID-19 policies and food safety standards, but she claims she was cautious throughout her time with the company.
Pedersen began working at a Starbucks store in Airdrie, Alta., in August 2017. She said it gave her flexibility to look after her son, who has special needs, as well as benefits to support her family’s physical and mental well-being.
During her time working for the company, Pedersen said she earned several positive performance reviews and a “Partner of the Quarter” award. The company refers to its employees as “partners.”
“I loved the company. I loved what it stood for,” Pedersen told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “I was a huge advocate for the company and then I felt like that was taken away from me.”
She has taken her case to a lawyer, who has filed a statement of claim with the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta alleging wrongful dismissal.
In an emailed statement, Starbucks Canada told CTVNews.ca it is aware of the lawsuit.
“We have no further information to share at this time as we are unable to discuss private employment or active (litigation) matters,” the company said.
The company said Pedersen was fired for failing to follow its COVID-19 symptom check process before a shift and for coming to work while having symptoms of COVID-19 on multiple occasions.
Starbucks Canada noted that it had very specific guidance at that time, which employees were asked to follow, to keep staff and customers safe and healthy.
Pedersen, on the other hand, said she would not have gone into work if she felt she was sick with COVID-19.
“I wouldn't put anybody's health (in) jeopardy,” she said. “I have practically lived at the children's hospital for my son — he was (receiving care there) for 12 years of his life and I know not to jeopardize anybody’s health.”
Pedersen said she went into work on April 19, 2021 in her role as a shift supervisor and was initially feeling fine, but soon developed a migraine and upset stomach, and had difficulty breathing.
At the time, she said she was experiencing stress from work, which she attributed her migraine to. She attributed her difficulty breathing to having to wear a face mask at work to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Pedersen said she told her manager at the time that she was feeling unwell and informed him of her symptoms, to which she said her manager responded that something was “going around.” She said the manager left for vacation that same day.
The next day, she said she went into work and told her manager, while he was away on vacation, that she was still feeling unwell. She said her manager then asked her to text her symptoms to him, and so she did.
Out of an abundance of caution, she said, she completed a COVID-19 test on April, 24, 2021 through Alberta Health. Despite her negative test result, Pedersen said she was instructed not to attend work.
Then, on May 2, 2021, she was fired from her job.
Pedersen tried to appeal the company’s termination, but it was denied. She said she was told that the decision to terminate employees who allegedly attended work sick was a uniform decision being applied at all Starbucks stores across Canada.
“I had a perfect employment history with Starbucks. I had no write-ups,” she said. “It just seemed really hasty for them to terminate me. I just didn't understand it.”
After that, Pedersen said she was given a week to use her benefits at the company, so she went to get her eyes examined. At her appointment, she said the optometrist noticed she had a roth spot, which is a hemorrhage in the retina, and shared that finding with her family doctor.
Pedersen said her family doctor then ordered her to get some bloodwork done, which indicated that she had a terminal form of blood cancer. Suddenly, she said the symptoms she was experiencing at work started to make sense.
“That's where my migraine came from. That's where difficulty breathing came from and upset stomach, because the blood was not circulating through my body,” she said.
Pedersen said she contacted Starbucks Canada again to let them know that she was diagnosed with cancer, in hopes that the company would have treated her case differently because of her diagnosis, but never received a response.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Are you saying that nobody should handle food … if they have cancer?”
Aaron Levitin, an employment lawyer representing Pedersen, said his client is seeking various damages from Starbucks Canada including for her lost pay, lost benefits and life insurance entitlements, and punitive damages.
She’s also seeking damages for what her statement of claim describes as the bad faith manner of termination and failing to properly adjudicate her termination appeal.
Levitin, an associate with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said Starbucks should stand by its position that it is a “conscientious employer” that takes care of its employees.
“This is really a tragic situation for somebody who's been awarded Partner of the Quarter, who did her utmost to make sure that stores were open when they were struggling,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
Pedersen said she had her sights set on working at Starbucks until retirement, but her firing dashed her hopes and expectations.
She said she wants her case to set a precedent for Starbucks to treat its employees better.
“I just feel they need to correct their wrong and they need to not do this to anybody else because it's completely unfair, like this is people’s livelihood,” Pedersen said.