SkyCity fire: One sick employee's story

A SkyCity employee has claimed her bosses showed no concern for her welfare after she passed out at work and was hospitalised after breathing in fumes from last month's inferno

Dozens of employees have reported feeling unwell in the wake of the blaze, which broke out on October 23 at the International Convention Centre next to the company's casino in downtown Auckland. Many say they were forced back to work when toxic smoke still lingered in the air, claims SkyCity has previously dismissed, saying tests showed the air was fine.

One of the employees, who wished to remain anonymous, has now spoken to Newshub about what happened to her.

Lisa (not her real name) says she was asked to come back to work on Friday, October 25 - the fire next door was under control, but pockets of flames were still flaring up.

"I have friends from the day shift - they kept telling us, 'You can still smell the smoke,'" she told Newshub.

"Some of them, they went home... They said they were having sore throats, itchy throats, red eyes. I got scared, so I phoned SkyCity and asked if it was safe to work. My call was transferred to one of the managers, they said, 'Yes, it's safe to work.' 

"I questioned why if it's safe to work, did some of the dealers go home sick? He said, 'I tell you what - you can come to work and see how you feel.' I need money, so I went to work - and I could smell the smoke all over the place. Everybody can smell it, they can't deny it."

Lisa didn't make it to the end of her shift. She returned on Tuesday, when the headaches began. She battled through her shift on Wednesday, making it to the end, but took a turn for the worse on Thursday, October 31.

According to Lisa, she wasn't feeling so well so checked her blood pressure - it was high. She says she told her supervisor, who told her "google it" on her break. Feeling faint, she sat down - and passed out. 

When she woke up, Lisa said she "thought I was dying. I thought there would be an ambulance coming."

"They kept calling my name - I was not responding. I just don't want to move - that's what I feel."

SkyCity fire
The fire on the first night. Photo credit: Alex Hague

Struggling to breathe, she says a first-aider took her to the sick bay and gave her oxygen, and she was soon feeling a bit better.

"First aiders and the operations manager attended to them and provided the individual with first aid in the sick bay where the employee was then monitored for 40 minutes," a SkyCity spokesperson said, not confirming whether Lisa had passed out or not. 

"The employee indicated that they had been suffering with flu-like symptoms for the past 2/3 days."

Lisa said she was then asked if her husband could come and pick her up. She told them her husband was looking after their child and would take time to arrive, so she says she asked to go to hospital instead - but was confused when they gave her a taxi voucher instead of calling an ambulance.

SkyCity told Newshub she agreed to take the taxi, but that's not how she sees it. 

"I was left with no option - I wanted to go to the hospital now, that's what I'm thinking. They may say I agreed with that, but I don't have any option, so I went to the hospital via taxi."

Once she arrived at the hospital, Lisa says a nurse recognised right away something was wrong, and rushed her to the emergency department, where she was diagnosed with sinusitis and later passed blood in her stool (possibly for an unrelated issue). 

"I called SkyCity the following day to tell them I'm in the hospital... I told them I don't have any sick leave, maybe they can approve it. 

"They transferred my call to a manager. I told the manager I'm in the hospital... the manager said, 'So you're in the hospital?' I said yes... He should show concern - 'How are you? Are you feeling well?' But I didn't hear those words. He only says, 'You're in the hospital? You cannot come to work tonight?' ... I think I was crying after that. 

"I didn't want to be in the hospital, and he talks to me like he really doesn't show any concern for me. I was in the hospital, I'm not lying - they should know what happened to me. I passed out at work, why is he talking to me like that?"

Lisa stayed in hospital until Tuesday, and says she spent the next couple of weeks recovering at home. 

"I was waiting for the company to call and check on me - no one did. It happened at my workplace, they should check on me. They should show concern for their staff, but no one called. I didn't receive anything except for the union - the union were the first one to call me and keep in touch with me."

SkyCity said there was "communication with the employee during this period".

She says she eventually called them to ask about compassionate leave, so she'd still get paid.

"I'm not asking for compensation or whatever - I'm asking for my rights, compassionate leave. She said 'there's no such thing', something like that. 

"So okay. Then she keeps calling me the following day and said... they have approved 32 hours' extra leave for me... They keep asking me when I'm coming back to work."

Damage inside SkyCity.
Damage inside SkyCity. Photo credit: FENZ

Unite organiser Joe Carolan said compassionate leave is in union members' contracts with SkyCity to be used sparingly.

"People got sick nearly instantly, just two hours into their shifts. That means the employer has injured the workers. They should be applying for workplace injury under ACC - they shouldn't be using their own sick leave, they shouldn't be using annual leave."

Carolan also said WorkSafe has not been advised of Lisa's incident.

"When a worker falls unconscious after an incident like this, they should have notified. There's no notification at Worksafe."

The law requires companies to notify WorkSafe if an injury happens at work that requires the victim to go to hospital, if it arises "out of the conduct of the business or undertaking". SkyCity has claimed tests showed the air quality was fine when it asked workers to return two days after the fire began, and told Newshub it didn't notify WorkSafe because "illness at work does not require a notification to Worksafe".

Unite representatives met with SkyCity on Friday, Carolan saying they would be be presenting bosses with a "dossier of the 50 workers who've been sick and say you need to pay them under ACC for workplace injury that you caused".

SkyCity is a member of ACC's Accredited Employers Programme, which lets employers manage their own employees' injury claims.

"They're declining their own ACC applications," Carolan told Newshub, adding that he was angry no one at SkyCity would put their name to the company's version of events.

SkyCity told Newshub no ACC claim from Lisa has been received as of Friday.

Lisa is still awaiting the results of some of the testing done at hospital. She said further negotiations with SkyCity were cut off when she insisted on having a union representative present. SkyCity said this wasn't true.

"At no time was the employee discouraged from engaging with their union representative and nor were discussions cut off as claimed."

WorkSafe earlier this month launched an investigation into the causes of the fire and the company's response.