Golf coach fired for refusing to give Covid Gap more than $15,000

A golf coach who was “humiliated” after being fired for not having a Covid vaccine will receive more than $15,000 from his former employer after successfully arguing his firing was unjustified.

Benjamin Harwood had been employed at Whangamatā Golf Club Incorporated for just over a year when he was fired in December 2021 in the wake of the club’s “no strike, no play” policy.

Harewood took the club to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), arguing that the policy was “unreasonable and unfair” and failed to fairly consider alternatives to dismissal.

The club disputed this and said it had gone through a fair process of consultation with Harwood about vaccination policy and had communicated with him about the consequences of his “failure to comply”.

However, in a recent decision, the ERA has ruled in favor of Harwood.

The row began on 2 November 2021, when club general manager Richard White and club governance committee chairman Terry Wilson met with staff to brief them on the club’s vaccination status.

During the meeting, it was discussed that golf clubs across the country were moving to a mandatory vaccine policy for members and players after concerns about the risks associated with the Delta Covid variant.

Employees were asked to complete an assessment identifying hazards in their own work area.

Harwood, whose roles included a professional golf instructor, golf manager and his role at the retail store helping out with customer service, positioned himself as “low/medium” risk.

But White disagreed with this and answered Harwood, giving him an overall high risk rating.

This was met with a response by Harwood, who explained concerns that the assessment was general and that he had provided an honest assessment of the risks.

Harwood followed up with a letter to White and the board, explaining that his employment agreement did not require him to undergo any medical procedures to carry out his roles within the club.

He also raised his concerns about the vaccine and referred to his rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights.

The risk to any vulnerable person they may interact with at work can be managed, Harewood writes, and will self-isolate and get tested if they experience any symptoms of Covid-19.

That same day, White replied to Harwood, saying that all employees would be required to show a vaccine certificate and that he would have to get his first vaccine by December 3.

If Harwood cannot provide evidence that he has been vaccinated, his employment with the club will end on December 26. He will be removed from work on full pay and given four weeks’ notice.

On December 3 White wrote to Harewood a notice of his dismissal, effective December 31.

Harwood expressed disappointment that the board had removed him and raised concerns that they had not addressed his earlier proposals, and called on them to consider resolving the dispute.

Harwood said his sacking had a very emotional impact on him and his family. He grew up in Whangamata and returned to his hometown to take up the role with the club.

Authority member Marija Urlich said she was satisfied the club had given Harewood a fair opportunity to comment on the policy before it was implemented and had honestly addressed his concerns.

However, it found that while the club had given Harewood two weeks’ notice before he was due to be vaccinated, this “collapsed” into a dismissal notice.

“This was an incorrect approach because, having satisfied Mr. Harwood that he could not meet the vaccination requirements by the specified date, the legal scheme required him to then turn to exhaust all possible alternatives to dismissal before serving a notice of termination.”

The club was ordered to pay Harwood $15,000 in damages for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury of feelings, plus two months’ wages.

By Emily Morehouse

Multimedia journalist at Open Justice, Christchurch

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