Small businesses are being urged to review their redundancy policies after two Virgin Blue staff were allegedly made redundant because they were pregnant or taking parental leave.
Both staff members, who worked in the company’s public affairs department, had their positions terminated in the same week. One of the women was four months pregnant at the time.
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The other woman returned to work part-time in November 2009 after the birth of her first child. In January last year, she agreed to lift her work hours to 35 hours per week.
In May, she alleged she was told part-time work was no longer available and she would have to return to maternity leave. The woman alleges she was then told in June her position was no longer required and she was to be made redundant.
Two positions with allegedly the same job title as the woman’s were advertised and subsequently filled.
Virgin Blue has rejected the allegations, stating the company is an “industry leader” in supporting working mothers.
Both women will commence legal action in the Federal Court next week against their former employer, claiming their lives and careers were seriously disrupted by Virgin Blue’s behaviour.
A Fair Work Australia mediation conference was held between the parties earlier this month, which failed to satisfactorily resolve the claims.
Terri Butler, principal of legal firm Maurice Blackburn, began representing the pair after the failed FWA mediation.
According to Butler, Virgin Blue failed to adhere to its own redundancy policy, which requires the airline to speak with affected employees before making a decision about their redundancy.
“My clients’ skills, extensive experience and good performance remained relevant to Virgin Blue… They were discriminated against for being pregnant and on maternity leave,” Butler said in a statement.
Butler said the department the women worked for was restricted and their roles renamed, but essentially still existed.
She also said one of her clients was informed by Virgin, a month after she told them of her pregnancy, she could not work outside business hours and was denied the earlier flexibility she had previously received to care for another child.
The woman was then told her role was redundant and there were no suitable positions to suit her “specialist skills”.
According to Butler, the woman was entitled to return to the same position or have the first opportunity at the new position, which performed the same role.
The second woman was told her position was no longer required and her position was redundant, yet another staff member assumed the role on the day of her dismissal.
“She doesn’t really accept that it was redundant because redundancy means the role is no longer required to be done by anyone. That’s the definition of redundancy,” Butler said.
“The job title was changed but required the same work… That suggests to me that there is, at least from the surface, quite a problematic attitude to people who need to go on parental leave.”
If an employee has been employed by a business for 12 months or more, they are entitled to 12 months unpaid parental leave.
The Federal Government has also introduced a Paid Parental Leave scheme, designed to complement existing leave arrangements. Every business must comply with the scheme, regardless of its size.
According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, unlawful workplace discrimination occurs when an employer takes adverse action against a person who is an employee or prospective employee because of a range of non work-related factors including pregnancy.
Under the Fair Work Act 2009, adverse action taken by an employer includes any of the following:
- Dismissing an employee.
- Injuring an employee in their employment.
- Altering an employee’s position to their detriment.
- Discriminating between one employee and other employees.
- Refusing to employ a prospective employee.
- Discriminating against a prospective employee on the terms and conditions in the offer of employment.