Illegal sacking brings $40K bill

An Invercargill accounting firm has been slapped with a $40,000 bill after it illegally sacked a woman on the eve of the first nationwide lockdown.

Catarina Johnston was employed part time by Southland Accounting Services Ltd (SAS) when the seriousness of the global Covid-19 pandemic became apparent last year.

On March 23, just days before the country went into its first Alert Level 4 lockdown, Ms Johnston left work to help at her partner’s fruit and vegetable shop, which was busy with people stocking up.

Early the next morning she sent an email to her director and shareholder of SAS Bruce Kennard outlining her plans to take annual leave until lockdown began so she could help at the shop.

“This will alleviate pressure for yourself and enable you to continue to formulate your plan for us ... to work from home,” Ms Johnston wrote.

What happened next brought the case before the Employment Relations Authority, which released its decision last month.

After receiving the email, Mr Kennard called Ms Johnston and terminated her employment, repeating his decision after she put her phone on speaker mode so her partner could hear.

The company director followed up the conversation with a letter.

“Yesterday I looked and considered the future of SAS under the new restrictions re Covid-19 and made decisions on SAS’ future re working from home,” it read.

“Based on that decision I made the decision to terminate your employment.”

At a hearing in May before authority member Peter van Keulen, Mr Kennard claimed it was clear to him Ms Johnston had no intention of coming back to work at SAS and she had effectively abandoned the job.

Mr van Keulen sided with the employee.

“She appeared reliable and was accurate in her recall of events, yet made appropriate concessions when she was unsure,” he said.

“Her account of what occurred is more plausible than SAS’ and makes more sense.”

It was clear Ms Johnston was “shocked and devastated” by her sudden sacking, he said.

“She was embarrassed and humiliated by the way she was treated,” he said.

“She has lost confidence in her abilities, becoming anxious, defensive and then aggressive over day-to-day matters. This has had a large impact on her relationships with friends and family.”

The authority heard Ms Johnston was undertaking regular counselling to deal with the stress.

Mr van Keulen ordered SAS to pay $18,000 for the humiliation she suffered, along with $16,792 in remuneration.

He also imposed a $6000 penalty for the breach of good faith and breaching an employment agreement.

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