School ordered to make compensation payments after unreasonable teacher transfer

School ordered to make compensation payments after unreasonable teacher transfer

02 November 2021 Authored by: Annie Smeaton, Sandra Barry & Megan Cheng   |   Topics: Education and training

A teacher was deemed wholly incapacitated for work after she was transferred to another high school in an unreasonable manner and required to teach a range of unfamiliar subjects.

In G v The State of Tasmania (Department of Education) [2021] TASWRCT 24, the Tasmanian Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Tribunal highlighted the importance for schools to adopt fair processes and implement appropriate methods of communicating with teachers to reduce the risk of workers’ compensation claims.

Transfer process leaves teacher with psychiatric condition

The teacher commenced teaching health and physical education, child studies, and home economics at Riverside High School in 1995.

On 1 September 2015, the teacher received an email from the Education Department of Tasmania advising that she may be required to transfer to another school due to the number of years she had been teaching at Riverside High School. This was because the teacher was included in the required transfer category of the Department’s Teacher Transfer/Assignment of Permanent Duties Industrial Agreement 2013 (Transfer Agreement).

The teacher completed a form outlining her work history and preferred outcome. At 2:02 am on the first Saturday morning of the third term school holidays, the teacher received an email advising that she would be transferred to Brooks High School. The timetable indicated that she would be teaching maths, English, history and geography, despite having never taught any of these subjects.

When teaching at Brooks High School, the teacher became highly anxious, stressed, teary and withdrawn. She eventually became overly exhausted and commenced long service leave in the first term of 2018.

In March 2018, the teacher received a voice message from the principal of Brooks High School requesting to talk about her returning to school to teach a grade 7 core class. The teacher went into ‘absolute meltdown’ and collapsed on the floor.

The teacher developed a psychiatric condition and made a claim for workers’ compensation under the Workers’ Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Tas). Two doctors agreed that the teacher’s employment was the major contributing factor to the development of her condition. The transfer to Brooks High School and the requirement to teach unfamiliar subjects were contributing factors.

Was the transfer ‘reasonable action taken in a reasonable manner’?

The Tribunal accepted that the transfer was reasonable action for the school to take under the Transfer Agreement. However, the transfer was not fair, transparent and equitable, and it did not consider the teacher’s personal and professional needs or the principles of natural justice.

The emails to the teacher referred to her ‘skill area’ and provided that she would be given an opportunity for consultation about any required transfer. Despite this, the only contact the teacher received after completing the form with her preferred outcome was the 2:02 am email confirming her transfer.

The Department contended that the teacher’s receipt of the email at 2:02 am was likely an IT issue. There was no requirement for the teacher to access her emails after work hours, and it was the teacher’s personal choice to have notifications set for her device at all times.

Despite this, the Tribunal found that delivering an email at 2:02 am ‘showed a complete disregard for the potential impact’ that such communication could have on an employee.

Although the transfer was reasonable action, it was not taken in a reasonable manner.

Was the allocation of the teaching load ‘reasonable administrative action taken in a reasonable manner’?

The allocation of the teaching load at Brooks High School was administrative action.

However, Brooks High School did not assess or enquire about the teacher’s capacity to take on a completely foreign subject load. Instead, it assumed that the teacher possessed key teaching competencies that were transferable across all subjects and year groups since she was university trained.

The allocation of the teaching load was not taken in a reasonable manner because the Department failed to adequately assess the teacher’s capacity before allocating her a full and unfamiliar teaching load.

Compensation for incapacity

The Department was ordered to make weekly payments of compensation for the teacher’s total incapacity for work since 20 March 2018, benefits for medical and other expenses as required under the Workers’ Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Tas), and a whole person impairment entitlement of 31%.

It is important that schools take a careful, considered and collaborative approach when managing a teacher’s workload and facilitating transfers. Schools should ensure that teachers are consulted and kept informed during the process of making changes to the type of work they perform.

Schools should also exercise caution when delivering information that has the potential to adversely impact a teacher’s mental health.

For further information on this topic, contact Cooper Grace Ward’s education and training team.

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