29 Nov 2022

Fire and Emergency NZ disadvantaged former rural firefighter by not giving him top job - ERA

8:58 pm on 29 November 2022

By Tracy Neal, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

Principal rural fire officer Bruce Janes.

Bruce Janes job was disestablished during the high-profile and at times controversial fire service restructuring. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

A New Zealand firefighter credited for his courage and leadership in helping with the Australian bushfires, and who then lost his job in a restructuring, has successfully argued he should have been given the top job he wanted but was denied.

But Bruce Janes still has a way to go around the negotiations table before that happens.

Janes' job as North Canterbury's principal rural firefighter was disestablished during the high-profile and at times controversial fire service restructuring, which included the amalgamation of urban and rural fire agencies around New Zealand.

With his job gone he settled for a role as a senior risk adviser in July 2021, having aimed for one of seven group manager roles created by the restructuring, which he argued was the nearest equivalent to what he had been doing.

When Janes joined the service in August 2017 he was responsible for 23 rural fire brigades and 407 volunteer firefighters in the North Canterbury region.

NZ firefighters in Australia

New Zealand firefighters in Australia. Photo: Supplied / Fire and Emergency

In January 2020 he returned to Australia to head a new team battling the worst blazes in the country's history.

Now, the Employment Relations Authority has agreed that he was unjustifiably disadvantaged by the "actions and omissions of Fire and Emergency New Zealand" (Fenz) during a restructuring process that resulted in him not being appointed to a position of his preference.

The ERA went as far as saying in its decision this month that Fenz was obstructive in not providing timely information to justify a decision not to appoint Janes to the group manager role, although it acknowledged that Fenz had disclosed orally the reasons why he was not selected.

Janes' dispute was not with the restructuring itself, nor the fact his position was disestablished, but around the disadvantage to him by not being appointed to a newly established group manager role.

He told the ERA his main concern was that he did not have to be either "best suited" or the "preferred candidate" to be redeployed into the general manager position, rather than be subjected to what was a rigourous suitability assessment.

"My skills, experience and qualifications are in fact relevant and transferable to the GM position," he said.

As a remedy, he was now seeking to be appointed as a group manager in Canterbury and compensation for the distress and humiliation he said was caused by the prolonged process and decision to not appoint him.

If he was unable to be appointed to the role the alternative remedy sought was to have his current salary "grandparenting" arrangement continue until his earliest age of retirement.

Fenz argued that Janes was not disadvantaged because he was redeployed to a suitable role that maintained his ongoing employment.

It said its decision was a "legitimate exercise of an employer discretion", and a "fair and accurate assessment of Mr Janes' capabilities", and was not open to challenge.

It added that Janes' claim of being appointed to a group manager role would be "impractical and unreasonable in all the circumstances".

Janes and Fenz were now exploring remedies via mediation, as directed by the ERA.

Fenz told NZME it was considering the authority's determination and would not be commenting further at this stage.

The fire and emergency restructure, which the ERA described as lengthy and complex, started impacting Janes in February 2019 with a proposed "Service Delivery Leadership Team" organisational structure and ended in September 2021, when this new structure became operational.

As the restructuring progressed, it became clear to Janes that his Principal Rural Fire Officer role would disappear, and he would have to seek an alternative role in the new structure.

The eventual proposal showed the nearest equivalent position in the new structure, was a group manager of which seven were created in Canterbury.

Fenz said the duties and responsibilities of the Principal Rural Fire Officer (PRFO) role were significantly different to those required in the new structure but they did not, at the time, provide Janes with the basis of how this decision was made.

The ERA said this was a "significant failing".

It said the scope of the responsibilities in the group manager role was less than the role formerly held by Janes, and the salary band was slightly lower, but it agreed the group manager role was the nearest equivalent position to the PRFO role in the new structure.

Janes learned in March 2021 his application to the role was unsuccessful.

He scored highly in an assessment approach the ERA described as comprehensive and objective, but the process then "swung beyond an objective approach", by indicating the next stage would be an interview conducted by a panel, with the possibility applicants would have to undergo a written exercise and reference checks.

In April 2021 Janes raised a personal grievance.

Despite Fenz's argument it had at all times acted in good faith, the ERA ultimately found the process used in not appointing Jane to his preferred option constituted a series of unjustified actions and in part breached good faith obligations.

It also found that Janes did not contribute to the circumstances that gave rise to his personal grievance.

The ERA said that if remedies could not be resolved at mediation it would issue a further determination on remedies.

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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