Painter must pay former staffer $20K

A Wānaka painter who told an apprentice to take her grievance to a "no-win, no-fee lawyer" must pay her more than $20,000 in penalties for unjustified dismissal.

A decision by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) said Everest Painters and Decorators owner James Bees employed the complainant as an apprentice brush hand on a sponsored work visa for about two years when, in February last year, she complained about having to work with a co-worker impaired by smoking cannabis.

ERA member Antoinette Baker said Bees appeared to take the co-worker’s side in a subsequent phone conversation and when the complainant offered to resign with two weeks’ notice, he became "aggressive" and suggested she quit immediately.

He followed up with a message telling her to "leave right now".

She did not work the next day, a Thursday, but emailed Bees that evening to repeat her offer to work out two or three weeks’ notice. He replied at 4.41am on the Friday, beginning the email with "no worries" before giving her instructions for a painting job in Queenstown that day.

When the complainant saw the email about 7.40am, she replied he had given her insufficient notice to travel to the resort town, and suggested she do the job on the Monday.

Bees told her she was breaching her contract by refusing to work that day or the next, a Saturday, and said he accepted her resignation.

In an ensuing email exchange, he told her to "take it up with a no win no fee lawyer an (sic) see how you stand. I won’t pay out anything unless I have too (sic)".

Ms Baker said Bees did not provide any evidence to the authority, nor did he attend an investigation meeting in Wānaka in November.

She found the complainant had offered to resign in her Thursday evening email, and interpreted Bees’ reply as acceptance of that.

However, when the complainant challenged the unreasonableness of his expecting her to travel to Queenstown at short notice, he had dismissed her summarily on the grounds of her refusing to work for three days.

Despite the complainant’s employment conditions making no provision for work on Saturdays, he relied on an erroneous "abandonment" of work claim.

He then "poorly communicated an immediate, aggressively-worded decision to terminate".

Although the effects of the unjustified dismissal were relatively short-term, they were "very real and likely distressing" for the complainant, and she awarded $10,000 as compensation.

She also made orders for Bees to pay the complainant a further $10,478.35 for lost earnings, unpaid holiday entitlement, failure to provide the authority with wage and time records and costs.

The complainant was hired by another business two weeks after her dismissal on a higher hourly rate, and her visa issues were resolved, Ms Baker said.