A thousand queries have been received by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) staff in the first six months of their new Early Resolution Service.
It was conceived when New Zealand went into lockdown during the Covid-19 outbreak last year – and when the nature of work changed dramatically.
The 1000 queries were made by employers and employees to address what otherwise could have been work issues that could flower into full-blown stressful and expensive disputes, says Pele Walker, National Dispute Reduction Manager at MBIE.
She says the new service covers a gap in the sector, adding that many of the 1000 queries were likely made by employees. An MBIE website survey conducted in August-September last year showed that 48 per cent of visitors to the site were employees; 33 per cent were employers; and 19 per cent were advocates (mainly those who deal with employment law).
A survey will be sent out shortly to those who have used the Early Resolution service, in order to gauge more precise sentiment around its effectiveness.
But Walker says anecdotal evidence indicates that the service is running well: "We have been getting great feedback and repeat users seeking help before an issue escalates."
The volume of applications received to date suggest that this service is filling a gap in the New Zealand employment landscape, Walker adds.
Here's how the service sprang out of the pandemic. The Government wage subsidy offered businesses a lifeline but the details were complex – and thousands reached out to Employment New Zealand via the phone for clarification around their rights and obligations.
"Previously, if people sought help from the Government's employment dispute resolution services for a workplace problem, the only option was to make a more formal application to the Mediation Service and Employment Relations Authority for employment relationship problems or utilise the Labour Inspectorate for issues around employment minimum obligations," says Walker.
The Early Resolution Service allows issues to be "nipped in the bud" before more formal processes are required and is designed to prevent damaging breakdowns of employee-employer relationships. The free service provides an intermediary who can help defuse any simmering workplace tensions.
In the first instance, people seeking help need to fill in an online form outlining the nature of the problem. Once the form is completed, the person will be contacted by the Early Resolution Service around three days. They will listen to the issues and arrange to contact the other party involved with the aim of resolving the problem.
Walker acknowledges that sometimes difficult phone calls have to be made: "They [the other party] involved may not be aware that there is an issue – or, if they are aware, they may not know the extent of the problem. This will allow them to give their own perspective on the situation."
The issue may be resolved within just a few phone calls, or it may take a few weeks for the situation to be sorted out. But the overarching aim is to defuse a situation that could potentially escalate, Walker explains.
"[Once both sides of the story are heard] the aim is to get both parties to a position where they can communicate with each other and work towards a good outcome."
Not all cases will be suitable for the new service. More complex workplace problems that are being dealt with by a mediator or labour inspector, issues around migrant exploitation, or through the Employment Relations Authority or the Employment Court, cannot be addressed by the Early Resolution Service.
But more minor disputes can be effectively resolved by this fast, fair, informal and free service.
All calls are confidential and both parties can be assured that privacy is protected throughout the entire process. If the issue is beyond the purview of the Early Resolution Service, the parties will be given advice on how to go forward.
To get in touch with the Early Resolution Service, visit employment.govt.nz/earlyresolution