A former marketing manager for Winnipeg-based wellness company Tiber River Naturals is suing for wrongful dismissal, alleging she was let go because she was pregnant.
The company, recently besieged on social media amid complaints of a toxic workplace, is co-owned by Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding’s spouse. (The Tory MLA has disclosed he, too, has an interest in the company.)
Deanne MacNeil filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit in 2020 against Tiber River, alleging the company terminated her position in advance of her taking a second maternity leave in two years.
According to a statement of claim filed in October, MacNeil had been back at work for two weeks when, on Oct. 28, 2019, she told her bosses she was expecting her second child in April, and would be taking another maternity leave.
MacNeil alleges she was six months pregnant when, at a Jan. 6, 2020, meeting with Tiber River president Michelle LaLonde and founder Adriana De Luca, her employment was terminated "suddenly and without prior notice or just cause."
The claim says MacNeil was told the marketing department was being outsourced to another company, 6P Marketing, and all other employees in the department had been offered jobs with 6P. MacNeil alleges De Luca said she had not been offered one "because she was pregnant."
MacNeil alleges the company offered to provide eight weeks’ notice, which would give her enough hours to collect employment insurance — but only if she agreed to sign a release freeing Tiber River from any legal liability respecting her termination. She declined.
"The unfair manner in which Mrs. MacNeil was terminated… displays a flagrant and wanton disregard for her rights," alleges the statement of claim. "The acts of Tiber River were and continue to be harsh and reprehensible in nature and deserving of the award of punitive damages and/or aggravated damages."
In a statement of defence, the company denied having any control over who 6P Marketing chose to hire.
Tiber River said it was aware MacNeil was pregnant, but not how many months or when she planned to take maternity leave. It denied saying 6P Marketing didn’t hire MacNeil because she was pregnant.
"If Adriana De Luca advised her to such a reason, which is not admitted, but expressly denied, this was purely conjecture… as the fact is the defendant had no input whatsoever into the hiring decisions made by 6P Marketing," says the statement of defence.
This week, more than 50 former and current employees took to social media to allege Tiber River operates a hostile, even abusive, working environment. The anonymous Instagram page titled "Not My Tiber," is reminiscent of the 2018 "Not My Stella’s" campaign by restaurant workers who complained about mistreatment.
Tiber River defended itself in a statement posted Tuesday, saying a human resources firm will conduct an independent workplace assessment, among other measures.
The company hired a new chief operating officer, who told the Free Press there have been three official complaints since 2007: two found in favour of employees, one for the company.
Tiber River president LaLonde’s spouse is Kirkfield Park MLA and former city councillor Fielding, who has been finance minister since 2018.
In a statement of assets and interests filed with the clerk of the legislature in October, Fielding disclosed his connections to the company under the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act. He identified LaLonde as a shareholder and owner of Tiber River Naturals under the employment, directorships and shares disclosure — and that he has an interest in the lease of Tiber’s three locations.
Asked Friday if he is involved with any aspect of the business, and would have any comment about the workplace complaints, Fielding’s spokesman released a statement.
"Minister Fielding is not a shareholder in this company and not involved in its day-to-day operations in any way.
"He has filed all the appropriate disclosures with the conflict of interest commissioner, and spoke with the commissioner recently to confirm that he has taken all the appropriate measures in light of the concerns raised on social media.
"I think he needs to explain how he's dealing with that and recuse himself in situations where there's an obvious conflict."– NDP finance critic Mark Wasyliw.
"These measures include a full, formal recusal from any ministerial-level decisions regarding the labour practices of Tiber River Naturals."
The spokesman said Fielding is also not a lease holder and that his disclosure about the lease pertains to Lalonde.
One former Tiber River manager said Fielding would go into the Academy Road location occasionally for gift cards that were "comped" (complimentary) and to pick up his teen daughters who would receive complimentary gel nails and manicures.
Ashley, who didn’t want her last name published, said she was fired "without reason or warning" three months into the job after raising concerns about toxic behaviour by a higher-up.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.