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Steadman v Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce Inc [2013] NZERA Christchurch 109, 14 June 2013

Westlaw NZ

The Employment Relations Authority has rejected an injured employee's claims that her employer didn't follow its rehabilitation policy and failed to provide a safe workplace after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Steadman worked for the Chamber as a training and development manager. She fell from a horse on 20 February 2011 and suffered a blow to her head. However, she didn't visit the doctor or tell the Chamber about her injury until 28 March. Meanwhile, the Chamber's work premises was closed following the 22 February earthquake. The CEO's home was set up as a temporary office and staff, including Steadman, were allowed to work from home.

At first, medical advice from Steadman's GP was that she would need to work reduced hours of two hours a day for four weeks and could then to return to normal work. However, subsequent medical certificates delayed her return to work. In August 2011, Steadman resigned. She subsequently claimed she had been constructively dismissed, that the Chamber had failed to meet its good faith obligations, and that it had breached her employment agreement by failing to provide a safe workplace.

The Authority held that the Chamber was starved of information about what could reasonably be expected of Steadman from a medical point of view. The Chamber could have insisted on a full medical assessment and, with the benefit of hindsight, that would have been sensible. However, the Chamber was always expecting Steadman to be cleared for normal duties at her next doctor's appointment and had no idea how unwell she really was. Steadman knew more about her health than the Chamber did and she had a duty, as part of the good faith obligation, to make it plain to the employer that she was really struggling.

The Authority held that in the particular circumstances of Canterbury post-earthquake, it would be wrong to impose a counsel of perfection on an employer who was doing its very best in exceptionally trying circumstances. The Chamber did everything it could within the terms of the information it had at its disposal to adequately support Steadman as she recovered from her injury.

Steadman claimed the Chamber failed to provide a safe workplace for staff working from the CEO's home. The alleged deficiencies included no emergency management plan, no detailed structural survey on the property, a hazardous working environment because of power cabling creating tripping hazards and lack of space, and no real consideration around the mental wellbeing of staff.

The Authority stated that its obligation was to assess the employer's actions not by the test that would apply in normal circumstances, but by what was reasonable given the circumstances at the time. This is what is required by the test for justification in section 103A of the Employment Relations Act 2000.

The Authority acknowledged that the working arrangements at the CEO's home were less than ideal, but based on the evidence, they were not hazardous either. The ugly reality was that everyone in post-earthquake Christchurch was working in less than ideal conditions, in cramped environments, sharing offices, sharing space with other businesses or entities, working around power cables, desks and other impediments.

The Authority held that it should not apply a test to the employer that would reflect the realities pre-earthquake. The Authority must take into account all of the circumstances and by doing that allow some latitude. The Chamber did everything it reasonably could to ensure a healthy and safe workplace within the confines of what was possible in post-earthquake Christchurch.

The Authority held there had been no breach of duty on the part of the employer and Steadman's constructive dismissal claim failed.

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