Vine-Tech told to pay dismissed employees

Vine-Tech Contracting Ltd, of Cromwell, has been ordered by the Employment Relations Authority to pay over $15,000 to two former employees after failing to justify their being made redundant.

Inger Culling and Conal Wattam both claimed they were unfairly dismissed by Vine-Tech Contracting on February 5, 2009.

Vine-Tech accepted it had dismissed the pair but claimed they were justified redundancies.

Mr Wattam was employed by Vine-Tech in December 2006 as a machinery operator and promoted to viticulture manager in June 2008.

He claimed that in November 2008 a woman was employed who appeared to take over his managerial role. Perks including a company car, cellphone and laptop he got when promoted were also passed on to the new employee and Mr Wattam effectively returned to the position of machinery operator.

He claimed he asked Vine-Tech joint owner Alison Patrick in December for a new contract but never received one.

On January 31, 2009, Mr Wattam claimed he was told by the other owner, Geoff Moore, to take annual leave immediately, without 14 days' notice, as set out in his employment agreement.

While on leave, Mr Wattam received a phone call from Mr Moore asking him to a meeting on February 5. Mr Wattam claimed in this meeting he was told by Ms Patrick that his position no longer existed and was offered a position of vineyard supervisor, which would result in lesser duties and pay. He did not accept the new position and as a result his employment was terminated.

Ms Patrick and Mr Moore claimed Vine-Tech needed a qualified viticulturist in the position and there were concerns about Mr Wattam's handling of machinery and the number of accidents he had.

The authority found Mr Moore did nothing substantive or formal to address concerns about Mr Wattam's performance, Mr Wattam was never advised of a change in his role and Mr Moore's "thinking was influenced by a general dissatisfaction with Mr Wattam".

The authority found that Mr Wattam's redundancy was not genuine but "an indirect and inappropriate attempt to address a performance issue".

The authority ordered Vine-Tech to pay Mr Wattam $7961.54 for reimbursement of lost wages and $2000 as compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.

Ms Culling was hired as fixed-term vineyard supervisor in September 2008. It was alleged Vine-Tech tried to change Ms Culling's employment agreement early in 2009 when concerns were raised over her performance by the employee that took over the role of Mr Wattam.

Ms Patrick claimed the changes were limited to the job description and not the employment agreement.

The authority found that such changes would have resulted in an alteration to Ms Culling's hours and a reduction in earnings which were "integral ingredients in the employment agreement and not elements covered by a job or duties description".

Because Vine-Tech's actions were in response to concerns about the ability of Ms Culling to perform the duties of a vineyard supervisor as opposed to whether the position fitted the company's business plan, the authority found it was not a genuine redundancy.

Vine-Tech was ordered to pay Ms Culling $2400 for reimbursement of lost wages and $3000 as compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.



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