Dirty laundry aired by ERA

The owner of a Queenstown laundromat has been ordered to pay a former employee — and best friend — almost $60,000 after the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) found the worker was unjustifiably dismissed, and was the subject of a "unilateral breach of her employment agreement".

ERA member David Beck’s ordered Queenstown Local Laundry Services’ (QL) sole director and shareholder Jody King to fork out $25,000 to Vanessa Chandler in wage arrears, $20,000 compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings, and $13,345 in lost wages.

Beck’s decision says the pair used to be close friends, with Chandler living at King’s home for 10 years before initially working for QL as a laundress for two years from 2016, then returning as laundry supervisor in August 2019.

She was to work 41 hours, Monday to Friday, at $25 an hour, but after a small pay rise it decreased to $585.50 a week from May 25, 2020, after the first Covid lockdown.

Chandler says after telling King that was unsustainable, they agreed to reduce her hours accordingly, to three days a week.

She expected that to continue for only six weeks, but her hours weren’t restored and their relationship began to deteriorate to the point where they stopped communicating.

Chandler didn’t formally challenge the hours reduction at the time, nor was it documented as an agreed variation by QL.

King tried to resolve matters in a letter to Chandler in July 2021, but Beck described it as an "amalgam of personal and work-related comment".

"Despite offering an apology for the impact of her behaviour ... the letter is peppered with negative and pejorative comment on Ms Chandler’s approach to her work."

Two comments from King stood out to Beck.

The first: "I need all my staff to be supportive and proactive to my instructions. As there will be big changes happening."

The second: "As a boss, if this is not addressed by Thursday 19th August — Regretfully I will be forced you down without pay until you meet to discuss work related matters (sic)."

King also invited Chandler to attend an "urgent meeting" with a third person, or to inform her in writing of what the issues were so they could be addressed.

That letter and later correspondence showed an ongoing issue of QL being unable to persuade Chandler to fill out daily timesheets.

Chandler responded by text on August 9 seeking clarity on work-related mistakes to rectify, but got no coherent response so arranged a meeting, mediated by a Queenstown Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) employee.

While Chandler says the meeting was largely inconclusive, King says her employee signalled an intention to resign, but at some future unspecified date.

King also recalled saying there wasn’t enough work for all her employees because of the impact of the border closures.

On September 28, she texted Chandler: "In light of last weeks meeting. Shall we make it two weeks notice from today. (sic)."

Chandler responded: "No I will let you know when."

King: "Ummm. No. that won’t work sorry, I can’t afford to keep you on. I will write out a formal letter then."

And then: "You made it clear you did not want to work for me. So, that actually works out well."

Chandler says King didn’t provide her a letter of termination — thereafter, until March 2022, they only communicated via texts that Beck says "were not amicable".

They included an exchange on October 27 where King messaged Chandler: "You said you were leaving at the meeting. Please do so."

On March 4, 2022, Chandler obtained a medical certificate, leading to a dispute with King over her sick leave allocation.

King sent a text message on March 8 which ended with: "Your actions currently are not ‘in good faith’ I will not be paying anymore sick days after this week. And your last day of employment with the laundry will be 21st March (sic)."

Chandler didn’t return, but was paid in lieu of a two-week notice period.

Chandler raised a personal grievance on June 7, 2022, claiming she’d been unjustifiably dismissed and was due unspecified wage arrears.

QL’s response, authored by King on July 9, suggested Chandler resigned without any pressure from QL and King didn’t have time "to engage in defending such blatant untruths".

However, the ERA found in Chandler’s favour. Beck found no fair process was enacted prior to Chandler’s dismissal, in breach of the employment agreement and statutory requirements.

"Overall, I find ... QL did not act in a fair and reasonable manner in all the circumstances and Ms Chandler was treated shabbily — the dismissal and/or redundancy process was enacted in a flawed manner and caused significant detriment."

 

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