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Case Outcome: Employment Relations Authority rules that the salesman was justifiably dismissed
A welding company salesman claimed the loss of his company car and cellphone at the start of the March 2020 lockdown showed his subsequent dismissal was premeditated – but the Employment Relations Authority did not agree.
Mark Aitken had worked for 18 years for Welding Technology Limited as a sales representative.
Aitken alleged his dismissal was premeditated and unjustified, because the company’s owners asked him to hand in his cellphone and company car when the business temporarily closed in the first lockdown.
But the Employment Relations Authority ruled against Aitken, finding the decision to terminate his employment was “fair and reasonable ... in the circumstances”.
Aitken said he was entitled to keep the company phone and car during the lockdown, he should have been paid more than the minimum Government subsidy and the company restructure was predetermined.
Welding Technology owners Wayne and Ruth Whittaker announced to their staff that the business would have to temporarily close in March 2020 when the Government announced only essential services would remain open.
The Whittakers also had a private meeting with Aitken, and asked him to leave his cellphone and company car at the office.
Aitken said he was unhappy with the request because he also used the phone and car for personal use at his own cost, but agreed.
Regarding only being paid the wage subsidy, the authority said Aitken’s complaint was void because he agreed in wirting to only be paid the Government subsidy.
Aitken claimed that the removal of the car and the cellphone was unjustified.
But the authority found that Aitken was not disadvantaged by the action, which was a requirement for an unjustified dismissal personal grievance to be upheld.
The authority also found that the company restructure was a genuine business decision, because it stemmed from the company shifting from an in-person sales approach to online sales.
Dundas Street employment lawyer Megan Vandt said while the case did not answer all the questions about dismissals made during lockdown, it was a clear example of the rights of a small business.
“For many employers, lockdown was an excuse to make changes to the business, but it was a legitimate one. When you have no income coming in, you often have to restructure,” Vandt said.
But in this particular case, the situation was less about the strains of lockdown and more about a business and an employee disagreement over whether a company restructure was legitimate, she said.
Questions still remain for former-employees questioning whether their redundancies were legitimate during lockdown, she said.
“It really depends on the business. It seems this one had a legitimate reason for restructuring, but that won’t apply to all businesses who were not able to open during lockdown and had to let staff go.”