Yelled at for buying a pumpkin, worker awarded $21,000

Michelle Smith told the Employment Relations Authority she was bullied and abused during work at the Fitzherbert Regency Motor Lodge. Photo / Supplied

A motor lodge receptionist who was yelled at in front of staff and guests for purchasing a pumpkin has been awarded more than $21,000.

Michelle Smith was working at Fitzherbert Regency Motor Lodge [FRML] in Palmerston North when she quit, claiming she was unjustifiably dismissed, in 2019.

Smith's employment was transferred from a company that leased from the motel and she began working as the receptionist in March 2018.

But six months later, the owner of the motel yelled at Smith after she bought a pumpkin.

"I purchased a pumpkin to be used in the preparation of a meal for a school group. It was one of the wider items purchased," Smith told the Employment Relations Authority (ERA).

"But my boss was angered by the purchase and berated me in front of both staff and guests. The criticism extended to the purchases of breakfast items."

In a recent ERA decision, Smith claimed she was bullied and abused in the workplace.

She expressed concern that she was being asked to work in a way that created health and safety risks for workers and visitors.

Smith claimed her resignation was forced and she then raised a personal grievance.

The authority heard examples of how Smith was treated, including how the workplace expected her to be available to assist out of hours, even while on leave.

"I was called on a Sunday about an issue with the booking system. I missed the call and the next day at work I was the subject of an unacceptable verbal dressing down."

The authority was also told about another example where Smith received a call from an embarrassed cleaner after she woke a guest who had a late checkout.

When raising the issue with her manager, she was yelled at again and told the mishaps happened because of her.

Her management access to the booking system was removed and Smith was left in tears.

"I took the next few days off due to the stress I felt."

The abuse continued, with Smith claiming that she was physically intimidated by another worker.

"The abuse was so loud it woke the manager who was asleep in his room above. He came down and said the matter would be dealt with. He left and I felt under threat again.

"I chose to leave the premises, and when I did I was verbally attacked by the same worker again."

But the then motel manager, Kevin Davey, told the authority Smith was difficult to get along with.

"She was crucial to FRML's operation and had skills and knowledge I didn't, but I think
she was taking advantage of that."

The motel's view was that Smith resigned of her own will and was not dismissed.

FRML called on another witness to help suggest Smith was part of the problem.

But the witness admitted to hearing the fights secondhand and instead said how she had once witnessed Smith being yelled at.

ERA member Michael Loftus said the evidence made it clear Smith had been hurt.

"Not only did she speak of these issues during the employment and the angst they caused but she spoke of ongoing stress, anxiety and humiliation with these affecting her to the extent she needed counselling," Loftus said.

"FRML's view that Smith's conduct contributed to the dysfunctional relationships that resulted in her resignation fell well short of establishing it was such that remedies should be reduced."

Loftus ordered the motor lodge to pay Smith $3481 in lost wages and $18,000 as compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity, and injury to feelings.

Fitzherbert Regency Motor Lodge's current manager told Open justice the motel has had a revamp.

"I took over the managing role four months ago. This will not happen again under my watch."