Bus driver’s case thrown out

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A former Queenstown bus driver who refused to pay for staff accommodation provided by Ritchies Transport’s had his case thrown out by the Employment Relations Authority.

Peter Sunbeam claimed Ritchies, which operates the Whakatipu’s $2 Orbus service,
unilaterally decided he, and other drivers, would pay $175 a week for accommodation and
alleged the way the company dealt with him over the change — including removing his property from the accommodation without his permission — was a unilateral variation to his employment terms and conditions, and/or a breach of duty.

Sunbeam claimed that caused him to resign, amounting to unjustifiable dismissal and/or
unjustifiable actions by the transport operator, which caused a ‘‘disadvantage to his
employment’’.

In his decision, ERA member Peter van Keulen says Sunbeam, who had been living in
Invercargill, working as a bus driver, became aware in 2018 Ritchies needed drivers in Queenstown, and some had been given free accommodation in the resort.

He contacted the company that March and during a chat with the ops manager discussed
the accommodation.

Van Keulen says Sunbeam wasn’t told how long it’d last for and ‘‘conceded he was told he
may have to pay for the accommodation at some later time, but any payment would be minimal’’.

‘‘He says he remembers being told about $10 per night.’’

Another member of the management team, Lindsay Collins, told the ERA the free accommodation was ‘‘not a term of employment’’.

Ultimately, Sunbeam signed an employment agreement, which didn’t refer to free accommodation, and started work that April, using the free digs.

Later that year drivers were notified Ritchies would soon start charging for accommodation and in April, 2019, they were advised that was being implemented.

Initially they were asked to pay $200 a week, plus a bond, payable from June 1, but following discussions Ritchies reduced the rent, delayed the charge and sent an updated
accommodation agreement out to be signed.

But Sunbeam didn’t sign the agreement.

After he’d returned from a holiday on June 9 he continued using the accommodation without paying.

When Cesar Costa took over as branch manager he followed up with Sunbeam to get him to sign the agreement.

According to Van Keulen’s decision, during the first week Sunbeam was back at work there were ‘‘various exchanges’’ between him and other Ritchies staff over the accommodation
agreement and Sunbeam signing it.

Sunbeam alleges Costa was ‘‘aggressive and pressured him’’ to sign the agreement.

For their part, Ritchies says Sunbeam was ‘‘evasive’’ and avoided meeting.

Costa says it was so difficult to get Sunbeam to engage with him, he ‘‘resorted to not approving Mr Sunbeam’s time sheet’’ so he’d meet him.

‘‘Ritchies Transport staff then say when they did speak to him, Mr Sunbeam was angry, confrontational and refused to sign the agreement.’’

The ‘‘disagreement’’ continued till July 25, 2019, when Sunbeam went to fulfil a rostered shift and Ritchies didn’t have accommodation for him.

His belongings were in a room being used by another bus driver, so the company removed
them.

The company told the ERA the items were taken to the Ritchies depot for safe keeping and collection — Ritchies’ lawyer advised Sunbeam’s lawyer that had happened.

Sunbeam resigned that day and raised a personal grievance for constructive dismissal and
unjustifiable disadvantage.

Van Keulen, though, wasn’t satisfied provision of free accommodation was a term of
Sunbeam’s employment.

And while Ritchies’ actions ‘‘may have been direct and even a little harsh at times’’, given
Sunbeam had made it clear he wasn’t going to pay for accommodation, the company ‘‘responded appropriately’’, he says.

He found nothing to support a constructive dismissal claim, wasn’t persuaded Ritchies
threatened to stop his wages if he didn’t sign the second accommodation agreement and
didn’t breach any implied duties in removing his belongings.

He found ‘‘no basis’’ for either the unjustified dismissal or unjustifiable action causing
disadvantage claims, and dismissed them.

Costs were reserved.