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Boss must pay $26,000 to employee he belittled for not straightening hats

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A hatmaker has been ordered to pay his former employee more than $26,000. Photo / Stock Image 123rf

A hat shop employee suffered “harrowing” emotional harm after her boss, a man described as “passionate and particular” regarding hats, shouted at her in front of customers for not straightening the shop’s hats to his liking.

“You’re the worst employee I’ve ever had; the hats are not straight,” Peter Sutherland “screamed” at Simona Pasztorova, she told the Employment Relations Authority [ERA].

Sutherland told the ERA the hats had been “messed up and ruined”.

After Pasztorova’s employment ended with Nelson’s Serious Straws in March last year the woman turned to the authority, claiming she had suffered financial and emotional harm from her employer.

Pasztorova sought lost wages as well as compensation for hurt and humiliation, loss of dignity, and injury to feelings.

The ERA has upheld Pasztorova’s claim and awarded her more than $26,000, with its decision last week, stating Sutherland had made heated comments during the investigation meeting and that the behaviour he displayed in front of the authority tended to support Pasztorova’s allegation.

On Monday, Sutherland learned of the outcome when Open Justice approached him for comment.

“What? I’m completely shocked,” he said.

Sutherland claimed the “system was crazy”, that the matter wasn’t adequately investigated, and that the decision would only demonstrate “someone can purposely not do their job and get paid $26,000”.

On that, he said he did not have any money to pay Pasztorova.

“I’m just a poor hatmaker.”

The investigation meeting, attended by Open Justice, was held last month in Nelson where Pasztorova become upset at times, and Sutherland, who appeared without representation and without evidence to support his claims, become animated.

The ERA heard that on the morning of February 15, 2021, Pasztorova, who had worked at the shop for two years, received a call from Sutherland in an agitated state.

He asked her where the takings had been put and then complained about the state of the shop, saying the hats were not displayed correctly and the shop was messy.

When Pasztorova arrived at work shortly after to begin her shift, she couldn’t see anything wrong with the display and texted Sutherland, who had left the shop, asking him to come in and show her what he thought was wrong.

“Mr Sutherland arrived angry and aggressive and berated her in front of customers,” the decision stated.

“Ms Pasztorova says when Mr Sutherland arrived, he screamed at her, saying ‘You never listen, you’re the worst employee I’ve ever had, the hats are not straight’.”

The matter was heard before the Employment Relations Authority. Photo / Stock Image 123rf
The matter was heard before the Employment Relations Authority. Photo / Stock Image 123rf

Pasztorova went home on sick leave and when she returned to work she was told her three days a week had been reduced to one.

She felt the change along with the behaviour she had experienced meant she had no option but to resign. She said under the circumstances her resignation was a dismissal.

But Sutherland denied the claims.

He said that while he may have been upset when he was called to the shop, he had not acted as described by Pasztorova.

Sutherland, who never provided Pasztorova with a written employment agreement, confirmed he had reduced her hours.

This was because she wished to work less time anyway, he said, and he planned to “put her back to her normal hours once she had proved she was capable of doing the job”.

If the hats were not stacked properly, they could be damaged and lose value, Sutherland told the ERA.

“It was clear he was quite passionate and particular regarding all matters relating to the hats,” ERA member Geoff O’Sullivan said in the decision.

While Sutherland denied he screamed at Pasztorova, he admitted he was angry when she texted asking him to show her what was wrong.

Looking after the hats was Pasztorova’s responsibility, he said, adding she should know what to do without having to ask.

Pasztorova told the ERA that in the days leading up to her resignation she suffered nightmares, sleepless nights, skin problems and vomiting as a result of Sutherland’s actions.

Her GP placed her on medication and she was told to take two weeks’ stress leave.

When she returned and found her hours had been cut, “she simply could not continue on.”

The effect Sutherland’s actions had on Pasztorova was “detailed and harrowing”, the ERA found, and further, it preferred her evidence over Sutherland’s in regard to what had transpired in the shop.

“I find he approached the discussion in the shop in a confrontational manner and unfairly berated Ms Pasztorova, belittling her in front of customers,” O’Sullivan wrote.

The ERA ruled Pasztorova was constructively dismissed and that dismissal was unjustified.

“In a situation where Ms Pasztorova had not been provided with an employment
agreement, had been berated unfairly in front of the customers, and had her work hours reduced by two-thirds, it was entirely foreseeable that these breaches of duty by Mr Sutherland as her employer, would lead her to resign.”

The authority ordered Sutherland to pay Pasztorova $6624 less tax for loss of wages, and $20,000 compensation.

Following the decision, Pasztorova’s partner Mark Hardcastle, speaking on her behalf, welcomed the outcome.

He said Pasztorova had loved her job at the hat shop and that losing it and the ERA process had been tough on her.

“We didn’t go to the authority for the money, it was out of principle.”

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