Retail worker awarded almost $20k after being fired for 'ramming' anti-vax view on customer

The woman was awarded a total of $18,818.65.
The woman was awarded a total of $18,818.65. Photo credit: Getty Images

A retail worker has won a hefty payout from her former employer after being fired for sharing her anti-vax view with a customer.

The customer claims she was "ramming anti-vaccine info" at her and was forced to flee the shop - but with no investigation from the company into the incident the woman was awarded just under $20,000 from the Employment Relations Authority (ERA).

Sandra Mulqueen worked for seven and a half years at Merino Story's store in Milton, a small town of roughly 2000 people located just south of Dunedin.

She worked in sales and her employer acknowledged she was overqualified in many ways. In the ERA determination released last week, Mulqueen said she tended to take on more responsibility than her role required, coming in on days off and doing what she believed helped the store succeed. 

But TMS director Maureen van Tiel noted she had a "rebellious attitude" which caused issues at work, including "pushing her personal beliefs on customers within the store during work hours". 

She said Malqueen had been told from time to time about the importance of not imposing her opinions on customers. A customer had also once complained about Malqueen giving unsolicited advice to a customer, however, this was not passed on by management to Malqueen.

In July 2021, van Tiel emailed all staff with concerns about controversial topics being discussed in the workplace. These topics included COVID, COVID vaccinations, protests, political comments and legalising cannabis.

She then wrote specifically to Mulqueen about mask-wearing, reminding her of the laws and rules surrounding its usage.

But two months after this email, a customer travelling through the town complained to van Tiel about an encounter with Mulqueen.

"I like your shop but am reluctant to go into it again," the email started.

"I don't appreciate the person in the shop ramming anti-vaccine info at me and not giving up when she could see I was uncomfortable with it and just wanted to be left alone to do my shopping. 

"I couldn't get out of there fast enough and when I told her I didn't agree and didn't want to listen she got worse."

The email went on to say the encounter was "highly inappropriate" and forced the customer to flee the shop.

The following day van Tiel wrote to Mulqueen asking for a written response by one week to the allegations which were considered "potential serious misconduct".

"While we respect your right to hold your own views, you are not to communicate your opinions with customers," the email said.

Mulqueen apologised noting her memory of the encounter differs slightly from the customer's. She also said she had received extremely upsetting news about a family member that same day.

"I don't remember how the conversation started and am sorry that she felt that I was 'ramming anti-vaccine info' at her," Mulqueen wrote.

"I never intentionally antagonize or offend customers because I want them to come back, and very many do. The reputation and success of your business is important to me and I have always done my best to enhance it."

But two days later she was notified of her dismissal, the employer stating her behaviours amounted to serious misconduct. 

She was dismissed on  October 1, 2021.
She was dismissed on October 1, 2021. Photo credit: Getty Images

Mulqueen wrote back in protest of the decision but to no avail and was dismissed the next day. 

She went to the ERA, saying she grieved the loss of her job and identity as an employee, and she barely left the house for months following it.

Ultimately, the ERA found TMS did not follow a fair and reasonable process before firing her.

The decision said the customer's complaint lacked detail and further investigation into the matter was needed before deciding whether or not to fire Mulqueen. 

"It was unreasonable for TMS to blanketly accept what the customer said while at the same time discounting a long-serving employee's response without further investigation," the ERA said.

The company also did not meet with Mulqueen or disclose historical customer concerns

"Together with Ms Mulqueen's clean disciplinary record, explanations, and all the circumstances, I struggle to see how an isolated incident such as the one for which Ms Mulqueen was dismissed, could reasonably justify a conclusion of serious misconduct warranting summary dismissal," the ERA report said.

TMS was ordered to pay Mulqueen a total of $18,818.65, made up of lost remuneration of $8018.65 and compensation totalling $10,800.