Worker unfairly treated over mental health

CHARLIE MITCHELL
Last updated 09:22 01/07/2014

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A kohanga reo has been ordered to pay a worker more than $16,000 over her treatment following a psychiatric illness.

The Employment Relations Authority found that Fiona Hunter, formerly a supervisor at Te Ao Marama Kohanga Reo (TAMKR) in Palmerston North, was pressured to resign shortly after returning to work following a period of poor mental health.

Hunter had spent five weeks in hospital, where she had been treated for post traumatic stress disorder following court proceedings where she had given evidence relating to traumatic events from her childhood.

After returning to work, she was suspended by her employer and ordered to undergo a psychiatric assessment after a parent complained that she looked "spaced out", the ERA decision, released today, said.

Parents of children at TAMKR threatened to remove their children if Hunter continued to be employed there, even if she passed a psychiatric assessment.

The kohanga reo was also concerned about financial issues due to the amount of paid leave Hunter had taken and asked her to resign after reducing her hours, but she refused and remained on suspension.

Once her suspension was lifted, TAMKR showed her four complaints it had received from parents, an employee, and committee members expressing concern about her behaviour and demeanour.

In the following days, Hunter resigned.

ERA member Trish MacKinnon upheld Hunter's view that she was treated unfairly by her employer.

She ruled Hunter's suspension was unlawful, because she had full medical clearance to be at work and was not responsible for the unfounded concerns others had about her.

She also determined the TAMKR's actions amounted to constructive dismissal, effectively pressuring Hunter's resignation.

Mackinnon said "the treatment Ms Hunter received from her employer stemmed from ignorance about, and prejudice towards, mental illness", and ordered it to pay Hunter $9213.75 for losses after her resignation and $7000 compensation for her personal grievances.

TAMKR accepted its failure to follow fair process, and said it was due to inexperience and lack of knowledge rather than malice.

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