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Sacked for Mask Exemption: Fonterra Worker Awarded $30,000

In a recent ruling, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has awarded a former Fonterra worker $30,000 in compensation, plus 14 months’ wages, after she was terminated for not wearing a mask despite having a medical exemption.

This case highlights the complexities of workplace health policies during the Covid-19 pandemic and underscores the importance of fair procedural practices in employment disputes.

 

Background

Gillian Smyth, a canteen worker at a Fonterra plant, was dismissed in April 2022 for not adhering to the company’s mask-wearing policy.

Smyth, who suffers from asthma, claimed that wearing a mask exacerbated her condition. She obtained a medical exemption, which was in line with Ministry of Health guidelines, and informed her interim boss.

Initially, Smyth was allowed to wear a face shield instead of a mask. However, upon her regular manager’s return from parental leave, the situation escalated.

The manager received complaints from staff and, after consulting with human resources, enforced the company’s strict mask policy, which at the time allowed exemptions only for vaccinated staff. Smyth was unvaccinated.

 

Issues

The dispute centred on whether Fonterra acted lawfully in terminating Smyth’s employment.

Key issues included:

  • Whether Smyth’s medical exemption was adequately considered.
  • Whether the company’s mask policy, which differentiated based on vaccination status, was applied fairly.
  • Whether Smyth was given sufficient opportunity to respond to the allegations and concerns raised by her employer.

 

ERA Holding

ERA adjudicator Philip Cheyne ruled in favour of Smyth.

Cheyne noted that Fonterra’s shift from addressing serious misconduct to questioning Smyth’s ability to fulfil her role due to her medical condition required clear communication and adequate time for Smyth to respond. This procedural fairness was not observed.

Cheyne emphasised that Smyth was not given a proper chance to address the shift in concerns from her alleged misconduct to her inability to perform her duties.

The ERA concluded that Fonterra’s process was flawed, particularly as it did not provide Smyth an opportunity to respond to the new concerns about her mask exemption status.

 

Takeaways

This case underscores the importance of fair and transparent processes in handling employment disputes, especially during difficult circumstances.

For employees, this ruling reaffirms the right to fair treatment and proper consideration of medical exemptions in workplace health policies. It highlights the necessity for clear communication and the opportunity to respond to any allegations or changes in employment terms.

The ERA’s decision to award Smyth compensation and lost wages serves as a reminder of the critical balance that must be maintained between workplace safety protocols and individual rights. Employers must navigate these complexities with careful attention to both legal obligations and the health needs of their employees.

 

If you have any questions regarding the following case or something similar, please get in touch with the team here at Watermark Employment Law – we would love to assist you.