€10,000 compensation recommended for woman dismissed for not returning to office due to effects of Covid enforced creche closure

A sports firm here dismissed a credit controller after she could not return to the workplace following a Covid-19 enforced closure of the creche that cared for her two children.

Now, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has upheld the woman’s Industrial Relations complaint and has recommended that the firm pay her €10,000 in compensation.

Employment law expert, Richard Grogan today described the WRC decision as ‘ground-breaking’ concerning the issue of remote working.

The woman – earning €3,000 a month – told the WRC hearing that she could not return to the office as she had to care for her six-year-old and two-year-old at home following the Covid-19 enforced closure of their creche.

The woman stated her employer was aware that she had no alternative childcare and when the creche closed she proposed other options such as additional after-hours work, parental leave and lay-off so that the employer could advertise the position on a temporary basis.

However, none of these were acceptable to the employer and on May 11, 2020, the credit controller received an email stating: “Your employment should be terminated due to the fact that you cannot fulfil the duties and responsibilities required for the role of Credit Controller, in line with the needs of our business.”

The woman only commenced work with the sports firm on December 2, 2019.

The woman said that had Covid-19 not happened and she had still been able to work, she would still be employed by the company.

The woman stated that she made every effort to fulfill her role during the time she was unable to return to the office, but the firm chose to be difficult and dismissed her.

The company did not attend the hearing and told the WRC that it did not wish to engage with the process.

Mr Brady stated the woman faces attitudes at work during this time that were somewhere between “unhelpful and hostile”.

Mr Brady stated that the employer “engaged in relentless pressure on the complainant to force her to return to work”.

He said the credit controller was a ‘credible witness’ and she could not relate a single substantive explanation given to her by her employer for its insistence on her return to the workplace.

Along with recommending the €10,000 award, Mr Brady has recommended that the un-named sports company “take steps to establish a transparent and effective Remote Working policy to address future applications for such options”.

Mr Brady stated that working from home is now commonplace in a very large range of employments and in April, the Government signalled its intention to ensure remote working becomes a permanent feature in the post pandemic Irish workforce.

Mr Brady stated that there are also important social considerations including the promotion of family-friendly workplaces and improving labour market access for those historically excluded by the rigidities of traditional workplaces.

He stated: “These are no longer ‘fringe’ or discretionary considerations; they may be at the heart of the future structure of our social organisation and business life.”

Mr Brady noted that the sports firm staff member who advised the WRC that the company did not wish to engage in the WRC process holds the job title of ‘Head of People and Development’.

Mr Brady stated that such an alternative description of the HR function with a softer focus is entirely laudable and to be welcomed.

He added however, “regrettably” the employer “seems to have lost something in translation in the move from the old to the new nomenclature in terms of its understanding of its corporate obligations to its employees”.

Dublin-based solicitor and employment law expert, Richard Grogan said: “It is a ground-breaking decision in that it is putting it squarely on the table that employers now have to look at the issue of remote working rather than simply disregarding it.”

He added: “There will be an awful lot of cases concerning remote working coming through to the WRC under unfair dismissal and equality legislation.

“This is a very significant decision in itself and employers will now have to look completely differently at those employees with child-minding obligations coming back into the workplace.”

Mr Grogan stated for employees who wish to work remotely, employers will not be able to tell them that is not an option.

Mr Grogan was not involved in the case.

The claim is not enforceable under the Industrial Relations Act.

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