Fired chippie worker wins compensation

SIOBHAN DOWNES
Last updated 10:50 05/03/2014

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A fish and chip shop worker who was sacked after she was accused of stealing from the till has been awarded more than $10,000 compensation.

In a decision released today, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ruled the worker was unjustifiably disadvantaged in her employment and unjustifiably dismissed.

Rachel Stephens worked as a shop assistant at The Fish and Chip Shop in Palmerston, near Dunedin, from June 1, 2012 until she was dismissed on February 11, 2013.

She was employed part-time, and had negotiated hours so she could care for her children.

On January 7 last year, one of the shop's directors, Natasha Bates, handed her a written warning in a letter.

It referred to her lateness, use of a cellphone while working, issues with attitude and using swear words in the kitchen area, issues around cleaning the floor, smoking at work and payment of food and drink, the ERA decision said.

The next week, Stephens encountered a family issue which meant it would be difficult to combine work and childcare, and told Bates she thought her job was in jeopardy.

Bates wrote another letter advising Stephens her shifts had changed, and said her youngest child could sometimes stay out the back of the shop.

She again referred to Stephens' attitude and other issues raised in the previous letter, and said she was "trying to help [her] out", but it was her "last chance".

On February 8, Bates advised Stephens and another employee there had been a shortfall in the till of $50.80.

Stephens thought Bates held her responsible for the missing money, the ERA decision said.

A few days later Stephens arrived at work late and saw both Bates and the co-director, Christopher Arbuckle, present.

Stephens said she wanted to have a meeting to discuss the letter and missing money, but Bates said she was not prepared to do this.

Stephens said, "well you better hope your till is not down today then".

Bates later returned to the shop with a letter addressed to all staff, asking them to be more careful with money counting and transactions.

She told Stephens she had not been impressed with her attitude.

Stephens said she remained calm, but Bates said she felt she had to ask Arbuckle to come to the store because of comments she made, the decision said.

When Arbuckle arrived, Stephens said she accepted she had arrived late on occasions and used a cellphone. She had hoped to discuss the issues at a proper meeting, the decision said.

But Bates said she felt Stephens' attitude, including the comment she made about the till, was inappropriate and said she could no longer have Stephens in the shop.

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She told her to leave the property and said she was dismissed.

Another employee said Bates made it clear to her after the dismissal she blamed Stephens for the discrepancy with the till, although Bates denied this, the decision said.

Other employees said there were often accusations about the till being down and they felt vulnerable as a result. They resigned after Stephens' dismissal.

ERA member Helen Doyle said a meeting should have been arranged so Stephens had a chance to respond to the issues raised in the letters.

As a result, Stephens thought she was being dismissed for taking money rather than for lateness and her attitude.

"The absence of any fair and proper process led to the reason for the dismissal being unclear," Doyle said.

Stephens gave evidence of her embarrassment and distress because she thought she had been dismissed for stealing.

Doyle awarded her $8000 for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings, but because Stephens had demonstrated some "blameworthy conduct", this was reduced to $6400.

She was compensated $4080 for four months of lost wages, at $15 an hour for 20 hours a week.

She was also awarded $217.90 in lost Kiwi Saver contributions.

- Fairfax Media

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