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“Confrontational” Parking Warden Ordered to Pay $11,500

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ordered Yoon Cheol Hong to pay Auckland Transport (AT) $11,500 following a determination that found Mr Hong was not unjustifiably dismissed from his job as an Auckland Transport parking officer, neither was he unjustifiably disadvantaged before his dismissal.

Mr Hong worked as a parking officer, patrolling Auckland city streets and issuing infringement notices for vehicles parked illegally.

AT required, and trained, its officers in various ‘de-escalation’ techniques to manage members of the public who abused or threatened parking officers. The primary technique was described as ‘detach and walk away’.

AT held concerns because Mr Hong made comments which confirmed AT’s fears that Mr Hong would, while on patrol in the streets, sometimes challenge abusive members of the public rather than ‘detach and walk away’.

The incident that triggered the dismissal process was when a man swore at Mr Hong and threatened to break his neck after getting a parking ticket. Mr Hong called for Police assistance during the incident. AT’s concern was that Mr Hong had refused to follow lawful and reasonable instructions issued by them which placed his own health, safety and welfare together with some of the wider parking team at considerable risk which was completely unacceptable to them.

Mr Hong had told AT when he reached a ‘trigger point’ he would not observe de-escalation methods due to his own views on what was and was not tolerable. AT were concerned that Mr Hong was likely to respond in ways that made inflammatory or potentially inflammatory situations worse. This meant AT had lost trust and confidence in Mr Hong.

The Authority said that it was within the range of reasonable responses for AT to conclude what Mr Hong deliberately did, and would likely continue to sometimes do, was contrary to instructions and was serious misconduct.

Auckland Transport sought $36,500 from Mr Hong to pay back what it had spent to defend itself in the unjustified dismissal case; $35,000 for a two-day investigation meeting and $1500 in costs to oppose the interim reinstatement application.

Auckland Transport’s actual legal costs were said to total $55,868.

Over the course of the employment dispute, Auckland Transport had offered Mr Hong two settlement offers prior to the case being heard by the Authority. Both offers, one for $12,500 and another of $15,000 were not accepted.

The authority ruled Mr Hong’s refusal of these settlement offers were cause for a “steely” approach in awarding costs, hence the award to AT of $11,500.

Employer’s Decision to Dismiss Upheld by Employment Relations Authority

The case background

A Wanganui care worker with almost 30 years’ experience was sacked when a frail and elderly man she looked after claimed he felt “unsafe, neglected and scared” by her.

The man says the worker, Tuahine Hansen, would order him to make her cups of tea and do housework.

Mrs Hansen claims the complaints were untrue and the man and his housemate were coerced into making her look bad. She argued she was unjustifiably dismissed and sought compensation for lost wages, hurt and humiliation.

However, the Employment Relations Authority upheld Mrs Hansen’s dismissal from her role as a community support worker for Idea Services.

She had worked for the service for nine years and for IHC for 19 years before that.

For the 15 years until her sacking last year, Mrs Hansen provided support to two people in a Wanganui home, owned by the man who made the complaints and referred to by the authority as Mr A.

“The allegations made by Mr A, who was described by Ideas Services as frail and elderly, were that he felt unsafe, neglected and scared at times due to his treatment from Mrs Hansen,” the authority decision says.

“Specific allegations he had made were that Mrs Hansen sat on the couch and called him out of his room to make her cups of tea, that she made him do housework which he found very difficult, and that he was scared to ask her to hang the sheets out. If he did, she had a ‘go’ at him.”

When her employer, Dallas Barns, Area Manager, Idea Services, investigated, Mrs Hansen accused another support worker who did shifts at the house of coercing Mr A and the other man who lived there into making her look bad.

She denied other allegations against her.

The other worker, Heather McDonnell, said she had known for a couple of years something was not right at the house and Mr A was initially reluctant to talk about his problems regarding Mrs Hansen.

Mrs Hansen, whose employment file showed evidence of warnings and performance issues, was dismissed.

Mrs Hansen’s representative Alaska Dobbs questioned the adequacy of Idea Services’ probe and said there were dangers in relying on statements made by “vulnerable people who were easily influenced”.

Employment Relations Authority member, Trish MacKinnon, said she ”did not believe Ms Barns reached her decision lightly and I accept that she acted as a fair and reasonable employer is required to do”.

Mrs Hansen’s claim to have been unjustifiably dismissed failed and her application was dismissed.

 Measured and Methodical Process:

Authority Member MacKinnon said she was satisfied that a comprehensive and fair investigation into the complaints was undertaken and that the process was conducted in a “measured and methodical” fashion.

Once the complaint was raised Idea Services wrote to Mrs Hansen informing her of the allegations and asking her to a meeting to respond to the allegations. The outcome of the meeting was that a disciplinary investigation would be carried out. Mrs Hansen was informed that due to the seriousness of the allegations, dismissal was a possibility.

Following exploration of other alternatives, Mrs Hansen was placed on paid suspension for safety reasons.

The investigation was carried out with notes of those meetings provided to the Authority.

As a result of the investigation, further allegations were put to Mrs Hansen in another letter and a further meeting scheduled. After that meeting Ms Barns re-interviewed the complainants, reviewed Mrs Hansen’s personal file, reviewed all options open to her and wrote Mrs Hansen another letter.

This letter said a tentative decision had been reached, what it was and that no final decision would be made until Mrs Hansen had had the opportunity to respond to the tentative conclusion and the possibility of dismissal. That opportunity was given in the next meeting.

After hearing from Mrs Hansen and her supporters, the meeting adjourned.

When it reconvened Ms Barns informed Mrs Hansen she had listened to what had been said but her trust and confidence in Mrs Hansen had gone. She explained the reasons for this and informed Mrs Hansen that she would be dismissed with two weeks’ pay in lieu of notice.

Ms MacKinnon was satisfied that a comprehensive and fair investigation into the complaints was undertaken and that the process was conducted in a measured and methodical fashion. At all times Mrs Hansen had support staff available to assist her. Where necessary, timeframes for meetings were extended to allow for unforeseen events. Ms MacKinnon was also satisfied that the matters Mrs Hansen raised during the process were genuinely considered and that Ms Barns did not reach her decision to dismiss Mrs Hansen lightly. Ms MacKinnon accepted that Ms Barns acted as a fair and reasonable employer is required to do.

Conclusion:

The Authority will look closely at the process followed – it pays to ensure you follow a measured and methodical investigation and disciplinary process.