A dental assistant has been awarded $12,000 after being sacked for homeschooling her children during COVID-19 lockdowns.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) found the employer unlawfully discriminated against the worker based on her family responsibilities.
Dental assistant sacked for parental responsibilities
Fiona Carpenter worked for the Pearly Whites Dental Practice in Melbourne between 2017 and 2020.
During the pandemic lockdowns, she had to care and homeschool her two children, requiring her to negotiate her shifts.
Carpenter told VCAT that during one period, she tried to arrange to home school in the mornings and then work in the afternoons.
However, she said Pearly White’s principal dentist, Terry Wong, had no interest in facilitating that arrangement.
In fact, unbeknown to Carpenter, Wong planned to sack one of the five casual dental assistants and hire a permanent worker instead.
Terminated via email
On 19 July 2022, when Carpenter was off work with a broken foot, Wong terminated her employment via email.
He told her that he did so because of “the current challenging circumstances”, and the need for “more stability” in the workplace.
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Dental assistant awarded $12,000
VCAT member Ian Scott found Wong’s use of “the current challenging circumstances” in his email referred to Carpenter’s availability, or lack thereof.
He also concluded that the word “stability” referred to Wong wanting staff to be more available if required.
Scott rejected Wong’s claim that he needed to save on employment costs because Carpenter was a casual employee and only paid when she worked.
As a result, Scott found Pearly White Dental Clinic contravened the Equal Opportunity Act by treating her unfavourably because of her family responsibilities and her limited work availability.
Moreover, Scott found Wong had also contravened the Equal Opportunity Act because he instructed and or authorised the practice to breach the legislation.
VCAT subsequently ordered that the practice and Wong pay Carpenter a total $12,000 in damages.
Discrimination lawyer Chris van Oeveren from Worker Law represented Carpenter in VCAT.
“Parental and family responsibilities discrimination is a protected attribute under Victoria’s anti-discrimination laws,” he said.
“In this case, the employer engaged in direct discrimination when they treated Fiona unfavourably by terminating her employment.
“And the tribunal found they did this because she had to look after her children during the lockdowns.
“This decision is a warning to all employers that you cannot treat someone unfairly if they have legitimate parental responsibilities.”
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