Small Businesses Not Immune to Large Payouts

- Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Small Businesses Not Immune to Large Payouts

A family-run photography business has been ordered to pay a former employee more than $235,000 in compensation and penalties in a constructive dismissal ruling by the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. The ruling, made on April 30 in Melbourne, imposed penalties on the former employers for discrimination and breaching the Fair Work Act, after they allegedly told a pregnant employee that she couldn’t work with clients because it was “not a good look.”

Unreasonable Demands

The employers were ordered to pay compensation of $174,097 plus additional penalties by Federal Circuit Judge Dominica Whelan, who described their conduct as serious. As well as repeatedly discriminating against the employee on the basis of her pregnancy, and refusing to consider letting her return in a part-time capacity after the birth of her child, they insisted that she work “all hours necessary” to assist the business. She was ordered to take long service leave before her child’s birth because her employers stated that customers wouldn’t want to see a pregnant woman working, and it would make them (the employers) look like “slave drivers”.

In addition to the unreasonable demands on her working hours, after learning of her pregnancy, the employers demanded that she agree to a new contract of employment linking her wages to unrealistic, never previously achieved sales targets. The photographer had worked for the business for 12 years, and during this time it had never been suggested that her wages should be linked to sales figures. The figures had never been reached in the history of the time she had worked there, and she believed that the expectation was unreasonable.

Verbal Abuse

The behaviour of the employers towards the employee was aggressive, and included verbally abusive language on a number of occasions. This increased when she refused to work additional hours and complained of discrimination. The arguments put forth by the employer stated that if they had constructively dismissed the employee, it was due to a combination of performance issues and the financial state of the business, and unrelated to her pregnancy. However, Judge Whelan was satisfied that the employee’s pregnancy was the sole cause, and not the reasons suggested by the employers.

A Warning for Small Business from the Bench

Although in this case the employee was able to seek legal redress against her former employer, the judge raised concerns about the rights of employees in small businesses as a whole. Although this employee had been able to pursue her case due to her education and the fact her husband had legal expertise, evidence was heard that another employee in the same business had been afraid to inform the business owners of her pregnancy when she resigned and felt unable to seek similar legal protections.

Part of the reason for awarding the large payout, as explained by the judge, was to act as a deterrent against other small businesses making unreasonable demands on their employees and discriminating against pregnant workers. Judge Whelan stated that society has to take a stand to protect the capacity for women to continue in employment during their pregnancy and to be able to continue their career after having a child.

Written by Vince Scopelliti from WISE Workplace  Melbourne office
Comments
Anonymous commented on 16-Jun-2014 06:27 PM
"Thanks, Vince / WISE - for a well-written and incisive piece on an important topic. The recounting of the judge's comments on the duties of employers was especially useful.

I also appreciated your mention of the employers' wish 'not to be seen as slave-drivers' - when that is just what they were... Nice! ;)"
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