A school bus driver who waved down two nearby police officers to warn loud, unruly children to behave was sacked via a letter in her mailbox she opened on Christmas Eve.
Eighteen months later, driver Beth Wolak has succeeded in her claim that her employer had no good reason to dismiss her, receiving just under $20,000 following an order for lost wages and compensation.
The Employment Relations Authority last week ruled that Wellington’s Boss Transport Limited, which trades as NZ Coach Services or NCS, presided over a dismissal process that was “entirely lacking in procedural fairness”.
According to the decision, Wolak was driving a group of students home from school on December 17, 2021.
Children were being loud and unruly, and some were not remaining in their seats. Wolak deemed the behaviour was dangerous and waved down a nearby police car on Lower Hutt’s Seaview Rd, which followed her to the next bus stop.
Two officers boarded the bus and spoke to the students. While not detailed in the decision, Wolak told NZME they were onboard for no more than two minutes explaining to students how their behaviour was a safety risk.
“Ms Wolak says the effect of this was that the children’s behaviour improved dramatically,” the decision says.
Wolak then reported the incident to the company’s operations staffer, which told her to file a formal incident report. She filed the report on the same day.
After filing the report, the company was contacted by a school that had students on the bus.
“We have some very angry parents who are demanding answers from NZCS and me. I have said I am waiting for your feedback once spoken with the driver … not a good situation for our last day of term,” a school staff member wrote.
The company’s director Malcolm Little then met with employee Audette Little and financial consultant Peter Jury to discuss the complaint.
At the hearing of the authority, Audette and Jury were adamant the decision to dismiss Wolak was made by Malcolm Little. Little himself did not attend the hearing or give evidence.
The company then wrote to Wolak, saying her actions amounted to serious misconduct and could damage the reputation of the business.
“We therefore have no option other than to terminate your employment,” the letter said.
The decision says the letter was delivered on December 22, but Wolak told NZME she discovered the letter in her mailbox on Christmas Eve.
Both Audette and Jury gave evidence during the hearing that Wolak had not informed the company that police were involved.
But the authority had a copy of the incident report filed by Wolak on the very same day, clearly outlining that police boarded the bus.
“[The company] did not investigate the allegation and did not involve Ms Wolak in the process at all. It did not ask her for an explanation as to what had occurred, or indeed whether her action in involving police was justified,” authority member Geoff O’Sullivan wrote in his decision.
“It simply decided to dismiss her without her involvement.”
The authority said asking for help from nearby officers was sensible. “She was clearly distracted by the children’s antics.”
Speaking to NZME, Wolak said she was grateful to the officers for speaking to the students. “They settled down quickly,” she said. “The officers were just there, so I waved him to follow. To have that many kids yelling and moving around, it’s difficult to focus.”
She said when she opened her letterbox to discover she had been sacked, she felt helpless.
“There’s not a lot you can do on Christmas Eve.”
The decision spoke of how she lost sleep and worried how she would stay afloat financially.
Little, who is on holiday in the United Kingdom, told NZME he had no comment to make other than the fact he would be appealing the decision.
“This ain’t over,” he said.
Ethan Griffiths covers crime and justice stories nationwide for Open Justice. He joined NZME in 2020, previously working as a regional reporter in Whanganui and South Taranaki.