The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) is the agency responsible for resolving workplace bullying complaints in New Zealand, but it’s becoming overwhelmed.
The authority is struggling under a backlog of cases.
“The Employment Relations Authority in Auckland recently sent out letters to all parties involved in new claims saying it was going to be a three- to four-month delay before the case got assigned to an authority member,” says Auckland lawyer Michael O’Brien.
Specialising in employment law, O’Brien has many clients who are caught up in the nationwide backlog.
“Even if I look at this year I've had clients ring me nearly on a daily basis crying down the phone because they're waiting for a determination to come out from something that was heard in the middle of last year," he says.
"It’s affecting their ability to get on with their lives, often financial decisions, they’re waiting to see what the outcome of the case is - I’ve had clients suicidal and looking for an outcome to help to move on."
Anti-bullying group CultureSafe Christchurch says victims can be waiting 18 months or more to get a resolution.
One advocate from the organisation, Maryline Suchley, says it’s unbearable for many complainants.
"People are not only financially disadvantaged but psychologically. Some people can’t work or feel they can’t work,” she says.
"A lot of my clients will never go back to the industry that they were in."
The Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood says Covid-19 has had an impact at a time of increased demand.
“The Authority were unable to hear cases for a total of five months over the last year due to Alert Level 3 and 4 restrictions," Wood says.
"There’s still a significant backlog, but I have appointed three new Authority members recently which should help reduce the delay. I’m planning to make further appointments over the coming months."
O’Brien says Covid-19 was always going to lead to an increase in claims, but the delays in the system were present before lockdown.
Suchley wants more to be done.
“We want the Government to actually start taking workplace bullying seriously," she says.
"They'll throw money at mental health and say we've got a really big mental health problem, but the reason we have such a big mental health problem is we have a big bullying problem.
"If you do something about the bullying, it'll have a knock-on effect on the mental health of people."
CultureSafe NZ has presented a petition to Parliament calling for legislation to be changed to help make the process easier, and less painful for victims to lay complaints and get them resolved.