Worker disputes special leave, alleges 'unjust suspension' near contract’s end

Employer argues he had a fixed-term contract which naturally expired

Worker disputes special leave, alleges 'unjust suspension' near contract’s end

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) recently dealt with an employment dispute between a senior business analyst and his employer, New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).

The case revolved around the nature of the worker's employment agreement and whether the termination of his employment was justified.

In this case, the worker claimed that despite being on a fixed-term contract, he was essentially a permanent employee and was unjustifiably dismissed.

The employer, however, maintained that the fixed-term agreement was valid and that the employment ended in accordance with the terms of the contract.

Background and context

The worker applied for a position as a senior business analyst at NZQA on 1 February 2021 and accepted the offer on 5 March 2021.

His employment agreement was fixed-term, set to expire on 24 December 2021 or earlier, in accordance with the terms and conditions of employment.

The worker was engaged in the PACER Plus programme, which delivered educational services to Pacific Islands and was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

The programme was expected to last at least five years, and the worker believed his employment would extend beyond the fixed-term date.

The worker’s arguments

According to records, the worker argued that although his agreement was fixed-term, he was employed on a work programme that was expected to last at least five years.

He claimed that putting him on special leave near the end of his employment was essentially a suspension and was unjustified.

The worker sought lost wages and compensation for hurt and humiliation, asserting that the termination of his employment constituted an unjustified dismissal because he was a permanent employee.

The employer’s defence

The NZQA refuted the worker's claims, stating that the fixed-term employment agreement was valid and expired on 24 December 2021.

The employer argued that no extension was agreed upon and that the worker had consented to take special leave.

NZQA maintained that there could be no unjustified dismissal or unjustified disadvantage, as the employment ended in accordance with the terms of the fixed-term agreement.

The Authority's investigation

During the investigation meeting, the ERA heard evidence from both the worker and NZQA representatives, including the Chief Information Officer, the team leader within Information Services, and other relevant parties.

The Authority's findings revealed that the fixed-term employment agreement complied with the requirements of the Employment Relations Act 2000.

 The worker acknowledged that he initially considered the fixed-term arrangement valid and did not see himself as a permanent employee.

Regarding the potential extension of the fixed-term, the Authority found that while there was a discussion about it, the worker did not advance negotiations for an extension.

The ERA noted that "even if the offer of an extension was binding on NZQA, some further steps still needed to be taken."

The Authority also determined that the worker was not suspended but had agreed to a period of special leave through his representative.

Emails between the parties confirmed that "[his representative was told] to inform [the worker] that NZQA is happy for him to take special leave while we work to resolve this matter."

Consequently, the ERA found that the worker was not unjustifiably disadvantaged or unjustifiably dismissed by NZQA.

The Authority stated, "The worker was not unjustifiably disadvantaged in his employment by being suspended. The worker was not suspended but through his representative had agreed to a period of special leave. His claim of unjustified disadvantage is not made out."

Furthermore, the ERA concluded, "The worker was not unjustifiably dismissed by NZQA. His employment ended in accordance with a fixed term agreement entered into between the parties."

The decision highlighted the importance of clearly defined terms in fixed-term employment agreements and the need for both parties to actively engage in discussions regarding any potential extensions.

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