An Auckland Transport (AT) parking warden who claims he was unjustifiably dismissed has failed to temporarily get his job back after his bosses said he was confrontational with parkers.
Yoon Cheol Hong worked for AT since 2012 but was dismissed in February this year after his managers claimed he was dealing with members of the public in a way contrary to its policy of de-escalating threatening or abusive situations.
Hong has filed grievances with the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), saying he was unjustifiably dismissed and that his managers never discussed ongoing concerns about his performance with him.
An investigation hearing will be held in May, but in the meantime Hong applied to the ERA to be reinstated pending the investigation’s outcome, having unsuccessfully applied for 21 new jobs.
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In a lengthy decision canvassing both parties’ arguments – and with AT opposing Hong’s temporary reinstatement – the ERA decided to decline the application although it noted Hong had a strong case in some aspects of his argument that he had been wrongfully dismissed.
Hong’s dismissal was said to have come after a disciplinary process which began after Hong allegedly made comments during a training seminar that were said to be at odds with how he was supposed to behave if confronted by angry parkers.
According to the ERA decision, parking compliance manager Rick Bidgood told the ERA Hong had an “outburst” at the seminar, during which Hong was claimed to have said, “I have told people that they have to stop swearing at me as it is against the law and I will charge them for the offence”, “that language is against the Human Rights Act”, and “no one can speak to me in such a manner and I will not tolerate it and as a person I have every right to respond”.
“Mr Bidgood also said Mr Hong had referred to ‘trigger points’ he reached when dealing with a customer that meant he ‘would not back down’ and that he ‘would respond’,” ERA member Robin Arthur said in the judgment.
Hong had a different description of what he had said at the training seminar. The judgment said he insisted what he had said was: “What about responding by saying, ‘do not use offensive language in [a] public place’?”
Bidgood rejected that account and deposed that, at the Authority’s substantive hearing, other witnesses who attended the seminar would be able to confirm Bidgood had correctly described what Hong said, the judgment said.
Not long after the training, in January this year, Hong was said to have been involved in an incident with a parker, during which he made an emergency assistance call to AT’s parking officer’s communication centre, and the police.
AT claimed it was one in an “exceptionally high number” of instances where Hong claimed to have been abused and threatened, but Hong argued he was encouraged to report every concerning incident.
Mystery parker reviews, used by AT to evaluate their parking wardens, had reflected poorly on Hong, with some allegedly reporting Hong was “confrontational” and lacked “basic communication skills”, the judgment said.
Hong’s colleagues were said by AT to have taken a “dim” view of him.
The ERA said that would be “hotly contested” by Hong, who described himself as a well-liked colleague.
AT wrote to Hong in February, telling him it had “grave concerns” about his alleged inability to follow instructions, which AT said was a health, safety and welfare hazard and was “wholly unacceptable”.
Hong was suspended, then dismissed.
Hong argued that he hadn’t been made aware of ongoing concerns about his performance, and said initial communications to him made no reference to the January incident involving the police callout.
The ERA said that on the face of it, AT appeared to have insufficient evidence that Hong failed to use techniques designed to de-escalate confrontations with drivers, nor that he was on enough fair notice that he needed to improve.
AT submitted there was a danger to Hong, other parking officers and members of the public if he were reinstated during the interim period.
When an incident occurred, other nearby parking officers may be contacted by the officer who reported having trouble, “so those other officers might face some risk if Mr Hong did not follow approved de-escalation methods for dealing with angry people”, the judgment said.
It said AT was concerned there was some risk Hong could be involved in an incident with a member of the public “that hurt him, another parking officer or even another member of the public who came to his aid in such circumstances”.
“Mr Bidgood’s evidence was that such incidents could have very serious consequences. He cited a 2014 attack in which a parking officer was badly beaten and suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs, multiple cuts and bruises.
“While the chance of such assaults exists for every officer every working day, on AT’s argument, having Mr Hong working without applying those methods could be said to make those odds even more unfavourable.
“He had offered to use a different form of words to respond to any language that members of the public directed to him that he considered offensive. However, during the interim period at least, that change alone would not give a sufficient margin of comfort against the risk of violent attack that might otherwise have been avoided if AT’s preferred de-escalation methods were used,” the judgment said.
The ERA said the “overall justice” of the matter meant declining Hong’s temporary reinstatement, after taking into consideration that even if Hong won his case, reinstatement might not be an appropriate outcome.