Airport security officers successfully contest dismissals over alleged theft

PHILIPSBURG–Nine former employees of Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) have successfully contested their dismissal in summary proceedings in the Court of First Instance, it emerged Friday.

The Court in its rulings agreed with the arguments of the workers’ lawyers and stated the dismissals were unlawful and the nullification of their labour contracts unjustified.

The Court awarded the workers payment of their salaries from November 2017, increased with legal interest and a late-payment increase of 10 per cent. The salaries must be paid until the date on which the labour agreements are legally dissolved.
The Airport’s conditional dissolution requests were denied as the Court condemned the way the Airport had handled its investigations.

There was no urgent reason for a dissolution, nor has the Airport successfully proven it had justified reasons for losing its trust in its employees, the Court reasoned. The Court also considered the long duration of the labour relations between the workers and their employer, dating as far back as April 1988. The Airport was also ordered to pay legal fees to the tune of NAf. 1,000 in each of the cases.

Sixteen airport workers, were allegedly caught on camera stealing merchandise from the Penha store in the Airport Terminal Building on October 15 and 16, 2017, PJIA management claimed.

According to PJIA, six security officers and security screeners and three screening security supervisors confessed to management when confronted with the allegations after the store owner filed a complaint.

However, in front of the Judge during the March 9 hearing the nine employees denied they had ever confessed to the allegations. The workers claimed that they had heard that a Penha employee had given permission to take damaged and wet merchandise after Penha had largely emptied the store, but none of the workers admitted to the Judge they had gone upstairs to do so.

According to PJIA, seven of the 16 employees accused of theft had returned the merchandise, mostly consisting of perfumes, but the other nine had chosen to keep the stolen items.

PJIA management took measures against all employees involved. Those who returned the stolen items were suspended for two weeks without pay but were kept in service, while the nine employees who chose to keep the stolen items were dismissed.
Penha also filed official complaints with the police and the Prosecutor’s Office, PJIA’s lawyer Femke Jansen stated during the hearing in which PJIA was represented by Investigations Section Head F. Skeete, Security Department Manager J. Sprott and legal counsel S. Offringa.

Attorneys Cindy Marica and Shaira Bommel pleaded with the Court to declare their clients’ dismissals illegal and to order the continuation of remunerations.
The lawyers claimed their clients’ dismissal was unfounded and illegal, as it was based on the alleged theft of items from the Penha store, which, they said, was not properly investigated.

Also, clients had not been able to properly respond to the allegations, which were largely based on surveillance camera images which they had not been able to peruse.
Attorney Jansen stated that the Airport had acted diligently and meticulously in investigating the allegations of theft and in deciding to lay off unrepentant workers. She said the Airport had to give out a signal, also to its partners, that such behaviour would not be tolerated, especially not from its security personnel.

The Court said in its decision that PJIA had failed to confirm workers’ “definite participation” in the theft of goods from the Penha store. The only evidence that employees had been in the store was based on hearsay, the Court said.

The Judge also was critical of PJIA’s internal investigations, as no records were kept of interviews. The workers also were not confronted with video-surveillance camera images and with incriminating statements.
According to the Court, the picture emerged of an “unfortunate misunderstanding” which prompted the looting.

“Otherwise it cannot be easily explained why 14 employees, all of them security personnel, mostly with long careers with their employer and the necessary life experience, emptied the Penha store within two days,” the Judge said in his decision. After that a group reaction emerged during which damaged items were removed from the store.
The Judge said there were also indications that PJIA assumed the thefts were based on a misunderstanding, as persons who had regretted the theft and had returned the stolen items were not dismissed but sanctioned.

In its decisions, the Court also considered the personal circumstances. Considering their one-sided work experience it would be virtually impossible to obtain another job in post-Irma St. Maarten, especially for security workers with immediate dismissal on their records, the Judge stated.

“The workers are extremely happy that justice has been served and are looking forward to returning back to work,” attorney Bommel said in a reaction.

Source: The Daily Herald