Cleaner treated like ‘dirty rag’ gets her job back

The Australian, July 21, 2017

A Fair Work Commissioner has lashed an employer for treating a female cleaner like a “dirty rag”, declaring the case showed why unfair dismissal laws should not be weakened.

In a scathing judgment, commissioner Ian Cambridge condemned cleaning contractor Joss Facility Management for sacking 56-year old Veronica Bennett over the phone in February this year.

Ms Bennett performed cleaning work at three sites in the regional NSW town of Blayney, including the Blayney Public School where she had cleaned for 23 years. In August last year, after surgery to remove spurs from her left foot and ankle, Ms Bennett took unpaid sick leave, providing medical certificates from her doctor advising she was unfit for work.

Ms Bennett held regular discussions with the company’s ­return-to-work co-ordinator and in January said she expected to clarify her potential return to work at a doctor’s appointment on February 10.

On February 6, Ms Bennett received a call from Fleur Thompson, the company injury manager and internal legal counsel. The company employs 800 full-time workers and has dedicated human-resources staff.

Ms Thompson formed the view during the conversation that Ms Bennett could no longer perform the “inherent requirements” of her position and she sacked her. The employer sent Ms Bennett a letter the next day confirming her dismissal. Three days later, her doctor issued a certificate stating she was fit to resume work on February 14.

Commissioner Cambridge said he had dealt with unfair dismissal claims for 20 years and “unfortunately, this case will join the ranks of those elite few which forever remain ignominiously memorable”.

He said there was no proper basis for the employer forming the view Ms Bennett could not undertake the requirements of her job.

He said the “capricious falsity” of the employer’s decision was blatantly exposed by the medical clearance to return to work provided four days after the dismissal.

“The reason for dismissal was erroneous, capricious, unsound, unfounded, fanciful, ill-considered, illogical, intemperate, and devoid of compassion,’’ he said.

He ordered Ms Bennett’s reinstatement and payment of lost wages. She will return to work next week.