Pregnant manager takes Charlie's to commission

By Catherine Woulfe

A pregnant woman who was stripped of her duties and sent home to rest by high-profile juice company Charlie's has taken her case to the Human Rights Commission.

Nicky McFarlane, 32, from Glenfield on Auckland's North Shore, is on parental leave from her job as national sales manager for Charlie's.

She says the company discriminated against her because she was pregnant. Her daughter Amy was born in July 2006.

Last week the family was in the UK, but said the situation had been "terribly stressful".

McFarlane said: "I worked really hard for the company, achieving a lot, and am disgusted at the treatment I have and am still receiving."

Charlie's CEO Stefan Lepionka denied the discrimination charge, and said he did not know of the complaint to the HRC. He said McFarlane came to him worried about her workload and he had done what he could to help.

He added that a letter he sent to McFarlane when she was six months' pregnant, spoke for itself. It said: "I cannot in any degree of conscience allow you to continue to place your health and the health of your baby at risk.

"It is with considerable concern that we note you appear to have disregarded the advice provided by your medical advisers to take time off and rest ...

"It is on the above basis that Charlie's has determined in the best interests of both yourself and your baby that we will take the following steps.

"You will hand over all current responsibilities ... "

In the letter, Lepionka acknowledged McFarlane might not be happy with the company's decision but that he was acting in everyone's best interests.

McFarlane earlier told the Employment Relations Authority that Lepionka had told her the board was looking at making changes and she would have no control over them.

The decision said: "She says that when she protested about not being consulted, Mr Lepionka said if she did not like it she should not have got pregnant.

"She says that he then offered her four months' salary to resign from her job and 'go home, put her feet up and get out of the way while they made changes they needed to make'."

Lepionka told the authority he did not say those things.

McFarlane worked from home, as Lepionka asked, then took annual leave.

Since early July she has been on parental leave.

McFarlane had been on a $105,000 salary, and there was a dispute over bonuses she was owed.

Two weeks ago the ERA awarded her $18,000 in wage arrears, and $2,000 compensation for losing use of a company car.

McFarlane's lawyer, Anthony Drake, said the way she was treated was "plain wrong".

"[McFarlane is] an exceptionally bright and star performer, and so I think that that's part of her grievance really, or her sense of grievance."

Drake said Lepionka's letter was "full of weasel words" and, while it was reasonable for an employer to make adjustments for a worker who came to them for help, there was a danger in making decisions for staff.

He said: "I know plenty of women that would be strongly opposed to any accommodation being made, on the basis of 'I'm pregnant, not ill - treat me like I'm a human being.'

"There's a fine balance. It's risky for an employer to go direct to a worker, particularly a pregnant one, and say 'we want to change your job' - unless the approach has come the other way first and they're seeking some accommodation."

Drake said McFarlane had taken on extra work during her pregnancy, as other staff members had left.

She asked that her workload be cut back to normal, but intended to continue her usual work right through her pregnancy - she never wanted to be sent home.

ERA member Leon Robinson said her complaints about discrimination and stress were not raised in time.

He made no orders on that aspect of her claim.

Drake said he did not understand why Robinson made any mention of the discrimination issues.

He said McFarlane had not lodged a complaint about that because she wanted it dealt with by the Human Rights Commission.

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