Kohanga reo has to pay supervisor it wanted out
A Palmerston North kohanga reo has been ordered to pay a former employee thousands of dollars, after the supervisor at the school was pressured out of her job by whanau who wrongly thought her mental health put children at risk.
Fiona Hunter has been awarded $16,200 in lost wages and compensation after being unjustifiably dismissed from Te Ao Marama Kohanga Reo, located in Highbury.
An Employment Relations Authority decision - provided to the Manawatu Standard - details how Hunter went from being the supervisor at the kohanga to leaving it in August last year.
She worked there from April 2012, but took time off early last year to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. She was medically cleared to return to work, and had medical certificates as confirmation.
But kohanga management said she should take more time off, so she made a full return in June last year.
On the Friday of her first week back at work, a poroporoaki (farewell) was held for two staff who had resigned.
A parent at the poroporoaki wrote to the kohanga committee, saying she was worried about Hunter's demeanour at the farewell.
The committee had a meeting about it the day after the farewell.
The day after that - a Sunday - committee member Dean Rauhihi, who is now chairman of the kohanga, met with Hunter.
He said a whananu member thought Hunter looked "spaced out" during the poroporoaki.
He said many whanau at the kohanga, either rightly or wrongly, were concerned about Hunter being around their children because of her treatment.
Because of that, the committee suspended her on full pay until she could be assessed at the kohanga premises by a mental health professional.
Five days after the Sunday meeting, Rauhihi again visited Hunter's home and told her the committee could not get an assessment done.
Some whanau at the kohanga had threatened to remove their children from the centre if Hunter returned to work, even if she was fully fit, he said.
That, and the financial burden Hunter's extended paid time away from work was causing, meant the committee wanted her to resign.
She did not, and mediation was unable to solve the issues.
In her decision, ERA member Trish MacKinnon said Hunter did not pose any imminent danger to the children.
"I accept the kohanga whanau put pressure on the committee to act in what the individuals believed to be the best interests of the attending children."
Most of Hunter's ill-treatment was due to "ignorance about, and prejudice towards, mental illness", MacKinnon said.
Messages left for Rauhihi at the kohanga were not returned, and Hunter could not be contacted.
Hunter's arbitrator Jenny Murphy said her client had been "re-victimised by her employer". "[Post-traumatic stress disorder] is an illness that those afflicted with do heal from, and should be considered no different from a broken leg."