The dismissal of a paramedic for her use of social media after attending an anti-lockdown protest when required to self-isolate was recently upheld by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.
Ms. John had a long career as a paramedic with NSW Ambulance. In July 2021, she was directed to self-isolate under public health orders following exposure to a positive COVID-19 case.
During her isolation period she attended a protest rally in Sydney CBD even though the Greater Sydney region was in a COVID-19 “lockdown”.
She live-streamed her part in the rally on TikTok by an account that identified her as a paramedic.
Later she informed her supervisor that she had “f*ked up”. She explained that she took part in the protest, had “uploaded stuff to her TikTok account, and that “someone [had] taken it upon [themselves] to share it all over Twitter”.
Her comments on social media were alleged to have included:
“Of course the police have turned this peaceful protest into shit. As usual its always the f*king cops that do this. Always turn something peaceful into something it shouldn’t be. F*king pigs!”
“Everyone should just come around and come in front the back of the police and just push them along.”
“The coppers are sh*tting themselves. They’re all standing back to back. They’re totally f*king outnumbered.”
“… You f*king arseholes sitting on your arse there in front of the computer. Doing f*king jacksh*t and taking the f*king vaccine…Youse are all brainwashed. Is it nice to know you don’t have a free thought in your head…”
Ms. John attracted media attention. Complaints about her were made to NSW Ambulance. She was reported to the police and pleaded guilty to charges of failing to comply with public health orders.
NSW Ambulance terminated her employment after she admitted to allegations of misconduct. She then applied for reinstatement to her position.
The Misconduct Related to Her Work
Even though she was not at work when the misconduct occurred, there was no real dispute that the misconduct related to her work. As an employed paramedic, she had obligations to comply with the law and cooperate with NSW Police who she had spoken very negatively about.
The main issue in her case was whether the dismissal was harsh.
Ms. Johns said that her behaviour was uncharacteristic because:
- she was suffering from a serious back injury;
- she was coping with the symptoms of menopause and an adverse reaction to her prescribed medication;
- she was caring for her brother who was unable to live by himself due to serious illness; and
- her husband’s business was suffering during COVID which placed financial pressure on the family.
When weighing the seriousness of her conduct, the Commission also considered that:
- She was aware of her obligation to self-isolate but chose to ignore it.
- Her personal pressures did not explain her decision to livestream the event and her offensive commentary.
- The livestream identified her as a paramedic when she said, “And no we will not go home”, and also when she called into question the efficacy and legitimacy of COVID vaccines.
- Paramedics such as Ms. John were routinely exposed to COVID-19 and it was critical that procedures, including mandatory isolation, were maintained so that the risk of paramedics spreading the disease was minimised.
- Her commentary went so far as to incite violence against police, who she was expected to work with.
- Her language might make it difficult for police officers to feel comfortable working with her in the future.
- It was a requirement of NSW Ambulance and AHPRA that she not engage in conduct, including via social media, that may undermine the national immunisation program.
- What she did was obviously wrong.
- She had previously received a warning as a result of a breach of the NSW Ambulance Social Media Policy.
Employees need to be aware that in some situations social media outside of work hours can have implications for their employment, particularly if their position is senior or involves special responsibility.
Employers should consider introducing workplace policy and educating their employees about when social media may amount to a breach of their employment obligations, which may help their employees to avoid serious mistakes “in the moment”.
Although not a feature the case referred to above, employers and employees should also be vigilant to the psychosocial impacts of social media, especially in situations where work colleagues are negatively referred to in social media posts made during work hours or even outside of work hours.
*John v Health Secretary in respect of the Ambulance Service of NSW  NSWIRComm 1073