Colourful year for employment disputes

From a Santa-suited manager's suggestive work party antics to a candy-making fairy accused of vomiting into melted chocolate, it's been a colourful year for employment disputes. Matthew Backhouse of APNZ looks at an assortment of woeful workers - and the bosses whose unlawful sackings led to big pay-outs.

Disharmony is endemic to New Zealand workplaces, if the cases heard by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) this year are anything to go by.

Throw in a costume or two, and that's when things get really interesting.

For the fairy at Candyland, it was time to hang up her wings for good after the candy-maker threw off his themed wig and walked out during a school holiday show.

Jo-Anne Jarvis, who also left work early, denied allegations of abandoning her employment, refusing to wear brightly themed colours and vomiting into the melted chocolate.

The ERA ordered the company to pay her almost $13,500 for wrongful dismissal - a decision upheld by the Employment Court.

An argument over a costume also led to a big pay-out for the manager of a themed bar at Auckland's Viaduct Harbour.

Cowboys was ordered to pay more than $12,000 to Tuiono Tauo, who was wrongly dismissed, partly for forgetting to wear her cowboy hat behind the bar.

A risque Santa costume fuelled an allegation of sexual harassment at a Dunedin laundry.

The ERA heard Alsco's production manager attached a bottle opener to his Santa outfit as a "graphic and prominent phallic symbol'' at the work Christmas party.

Laundry worker Angela Roskam complained, alleging the incident was part of a pattern of sexual harassment, but the ERA dismissed her allegations, noting nobody was offended at the time.

Sometimes, the disputes heard by the ERA got physical.

In one case, a factory worker punched a colleague after having a rubber band flicked in his eye. In another, a truck driver kicked a chair across the room after his boss threw a cup of tea down the sink.

A particularly heated dispute broke out between two orchard workers and a neighbouring farmer. The ERA heard a father and son were sacked after the elder man went "ape ****'' and punched, kneed, head-butted and threw the farmer against a car.

Threats and bullying were also a common theme.

A youth programme worker was sacked for telling a student to "**** off'' and threatening to throw him off a boat, while a worker with an anger management problem was dismissed after throwing a shovel and sending an abusive text message. Both were compensated due to procedural errors.

Allegations of theft also loomed large this year. In one case, a preschool centre manager had to pay $5000 to her employer after using work funds for booze, cigarettes and holiday spending.

On the flip-side, wrongful accusations of theft proved lucrative. A clothing store worker, sacked for allegedly stealing a $35 T-shirt, was awarded almost $20,000, and a rest home worker, accused of stealing cash from a dying resident's wallet, was awarded more than $5000.

Sometimes, the ERA hears some unique reasons for dismissal - and this year was no exception.

A former Tamaki College teacher claimed he was forced to resign for being atheist and refusing to bow his head in prayer, while a Feilding kennel worker said she was dismissed for bagging her boss on the radio.

Sandra Wilson told More FM how much she hated working at Pet Stay and how unhappy she was with management - but had to pay $4000 in costs to her former boss after losing the case.

Sometimes, it might just pay to grin and bear it.


HOW TO GET FIRED

There are many ways to get sacked, and this year's Employment Relations Authority (ERA) determinations make for as good a guide as any. Here's a few sure-fire ways to lose your job.

* Don't do your job, and watch telly instead: Auckland Airport sweeper truck driver Robin Muru was sacked after he admitted watching rugby league, golf and an All Blacks game instead of responding to repeated calls to clean litter, which meant planes were unable to taxi. He initially said the job was too difficult, then claimed the the truck battery was flat, before admitting a six-hour sports TV binge in the terminal.

* Hide your conviction from your boss: Truck driver Peter Leith was given time off to support a friend at court, but his boss then read in the newspaper that Mr Leith, a recovering cannabis addict, had appeared in court himself and was convicted of cultivating the drug. The ERA found he was rightly fired.

* Put your colleagues in danger: The ERA found pulp and paper mill worker Warren Wilton - who admitted he was "away with the birdies'' during a training exercise - was rightly sacked for putting other workers in danger by failing to securely close pipes carrying caustic, hot liquid.

* Scare elderly rest home residents, ruin their dinner: Chef Pramendra Kumar was justifiably dismissed over a barbecue fire that frightened residents of the Fairview Lifestyle Village in Albany, causing $1000 of smoke damage and destroying the barbecue. Catering company Spotless said he left the barbecue unattended, risking the safety of residents, some of whom had dementia.

* Get high on cannabis, fall asleep and crash a truck: A lright, so Chaunte Hepi kept her job as a traffic management supervisor - but she did have her wages deducted for repairs to the truck, until the ERA said that was a no-no. Still, it can't be a good look.


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