ERA ruling: Architect awarded $20,000 after job loss blamed on Covid

An architect who claims he was forced to clean bathrooms and then sacked when his employer received a Covid-19 wage subsidy has been awarded $20,000 in compensation and wage reimbursements.

Deng Wang lodged a legal challenge against his former employer LW Architecture after mediation failed to resolve their differences.

The Employment Relations Authority has decided in Wang’s favour, for reasons including that he was not treated fairly or sensitively over how the job loss was handled.

Wang, a qualified architect now studying for a Master’s Degree in architecture, was employed as a lower-ranked architectural designer.

The firm said its employees shared the task of keeping the bathroom clean and that fluctuations in Wang’s salary were because of sick leave he took after notice of redundancy.

Wang’s evidence showed the loss of employment came as a shock, which caused him enormous stress. He said he suffered gout and developed a scar on his face because of it.

Auckland-based LWA specialise in the design of single-family residential and light commercial properties.

Wang started there in October 2019, reporting to the firm’s sole director Peng Li, on a salary of $40,000.

He successfully completed a 90-day trial, after which his salary increased to $45,000 in February 2020.

With the arrival of Covid-19 in 2020, the firm’s clients began cancelling and placing house designs on hold.

Between April and July 2021 about 25 LWA jobs (57 house designs) were placed on hold indefinitely.

LWA was granted a Government wage subsidy for 12 weeks based on a projected revenue drop of at least 30 per cent.

The wage subsidy was passed on to employees and on March 30, 2020, Wang was notified by email that he was to be paid 80 per cent of his salary.

On a Friday night two months later he was told his job had ended.

LWA argued that disestablishment of Wang’s position was because of the number of cancellations and delayed design jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it did not have its accountant’s financial analysis at the time it made Wang redundant, the ERA said.

Member Leon Robinson said neither was Wang presented with any documentation or information supporting any proposal to disestablish his role, or any information about the criteria for deciding which of the three architectural designer positions would become surplus to its requirements.

“I find LWA did not tell Mr Wang what it tells the Authority now. It was obliged to provide Mr Wang with access to information relevant to any proposed decision that might adversely affect the continuation of his employment.

“It was also obliged to provide him with an opportunity to comment on the information before the decision was made,” Robinson said.

The firm also failed to let Wang know that it considered the architectural designers would be impacted by an expected downturn in business before other roles in the business.

“It did not invite him to comment on that information. While Mr Wang may well have known the downturn in business LWA was experiencing, that is entirely different from him being fixed with knowledge that there was a proposal that the position he held might be disestablished,” the ERA said.

Robinson added that the email sent to Wang on Friday, May 29, 2020, informing him of the job loss was the first he ever knew of any suggestion his position was on the line.

He said it was not certain how genuine the reasons were for disestablishing the role, and that had LWA properly carried out an inquiry about alternatives to redundancy it may have meant that Wang would not have lost remuneration.

“Redundancy is a last resort. A fair and reasonable employer will do all that it can to avoid redundancy,” Robinson said.

He ordered LW Architecture to pay Wang $12,978 as reimbursement for lost pay and of $7500 compensation for hurt and humiliation.

The parties were encouraged to resolve costs between them.

An earlier version of the story mistakenly used a photograph of a house designed by Studio LWA in Auckland. The Herald apologises for the error

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