According to the Labor Relations Commission (WRC), an office worker had no choice but to resign from her job during the first closure of Covid-19 after her employer rejected her request to work remotely from home. .
WRC award officer Kevin Baneham ordered the employer to pay the operations coordinator compensation of € 3,712 for his unfair dismissal on 12 May.
In an email to her employer, a university-based facility management service provider, the worker stated that her employer’s refusal to accept the remote work proposal “has increased the risk of infection with Covid-19 for the three operations coordinators “.
“In case one of us gets sick, I will put my husband at risk, who is an asthmatic patient,” she said.
In his ruling, Mr Baneham found that the university’s operations coordinator had “no real choice but to resign” after his employer failed to take reasonably practicable steps to mitigate the risk posed by Covid-19 to the work placement.
Baneham found that the employer did not implement the proposals of three office workers who would have eliminated the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to the workplace.
The employer rejected a proposal of the three that two could work remotely at any time in response to the risk posed by Covid-19.
In the case, the woman, who was represented by SIPTU, worked for the facilities management company at a university where there are 3,200 rooms to house students.
In his findings, Mr. Baneham found that the requirement on the part of the employer that the operations coordinator attend the workplace without proper consideration of the risk elimination posed by Covid-19 “amounts to repudiation. of the contract “.
“This arises as providing a secure job is a key term of the employment contract,” he added.
Baneham found that the employer did not comply with the legal framework by first trying to eliminate the risk, “causing the worker to attend the work in greater danger.”
“In this case, the risk could have been easily eliminated or reduced by” reasonably practicable “steps, as the complainant suggests.”
Baneham stated that the operations coordinator “articulated a clear complaint and suggested how the work could be done in the safest way possible”.
“This was not properly considered by the respondent, which left him no real choice but to resign,” he said.
The award given by Mr. Baneham would have been higher, but for the worker in question to get an alternative job within five weeks at a higher wage.
“As an infectious disease, Covid-19 constitutes a biological hazard. In this context and at the heart of this case are the obligations of the employer and employees arising from the Occupational Safety, Health and Welfare Act and the fundamental principles of health and safety, “Mr Baneham said.
About 1,000 students were trapped on campus in March, some of whom isolated themselves.
She stated that the worker and her colleagues took on the difficult task of managing thousands of students who left the accommodation at the beginning of the closure.
Baneham said it was surprising that the employer did not judge the “eminently sensible” suggestion of the three office-based operations coordinators that only one worker attend the office and the others work remotely at the same time.
The worker provided a “closed” photo taken on April 17, which showed her and her colleagues working hard in the small office.
In an April 17 email, the worker told her employer that she was unable to socially distance herself from her two co-workers.
In a formal grievance filed on April 30, the three operations coordinators stated, “All three of us have family members in the“ at risk ”category and we are concerned about the health of our family members and our own. welfare. “
They claimed that these concerns were brought into contact with the employer’s line manager several times at the beginning and during the Covid-19 outbreak, but nothing was done about it and care was taken again and took into account “.
“Most of our work can be completed from home, but if there are issues that require our presence, there will be a coordinator in the office to address them. This measure will minimize the risk of infection and help us to to protect our family and ourselves, “the workers said.
However, in response, the employer rejected the offer to work from home.
In a May 4 letter, the employer stated, “Prior to Covid-19 it was never suggested that functions could be exercised remotely, and the same situation belongs in a post-Covid situation.
“Each person can be absent from work and see if they are entitled to a state benefit. The position will remain under review, but currently the employer’s position is that all three functions are not suitable for remote work,” he said. add the employer.
The employer stated that he had taken precautions in the Covid-19 workplace, including PPE; change the physical design of the office; the installation of warning screens and tapes and mobile counters.
In her May 12 e-mail resignation letter, the operations coordinator stated on her return to the office that her anxiety and stress levels had risen once again and that this time she had caused panic attacks.
“With this email communication I deliver my notice as I am not able to manage the levels of pressure imposed by management and the impact this has on my health well-being,” he said.
He stated that the employer’s approach “with the whole situation has been a real disappointment and the lack of care from its employees has made me feel discouraged and insecure”.
The general manager of the facility management company said at the hearing that the worker thought she should work from home, but the company’s client would not have allowed it.
He stated that his job was essential and that the client would not have allowed him to work from home.
He explained that it was the role of the coordinators to deal with the students and that they were required to be on campus.
The doctor stated that no staff member luckily hired Covid-19, neither at the university nor anywhere else.
He claimed that the client had the best record of all the universities in Ireland and this was due to the precautions taken.
In response to the proposal that some coordinators work from home, the doctor said in plain sight that he was very busy at the time, so everyone had to be there.
Labor law expert Richard Grogan described the WRC ruling as “a wake-up call” for employers. Grogan was not involved in the case.
But he stated that “the amount of compensation is not high as the worker got a new job in a short space of time, but the conclusions are important as it is the first ruling the WRC has issued on an unfair one related to the Covid-19 or constructive dismissal “.
“I think we will see a lot more of these Covid-19 cases going through the WRC,” the Dublin-based prosecutor said.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions welcomed the award of the WRC on remote work.
Laura Bambrick, head of social policy, said the case showed the importance of legislation forcing employers to provide reasonable grounds for denying a remote job application.
He noted that the Government is committed to giving workers the right to apply for remote jobs from September as part of their National Remote Work Strategy.
He said much of the resistance of employers to sanction remote work had been based on a lack of trust, but the Covid-19 experiment had shown that it can work successfully.
The chief executive of the small business body ISME, Neil McDonnell, said they should study the detail of the award.
However, he noted that many employers were concerned about the long-term responsibilities and responsibilities of employers where employees work from home, including those of health and safety and working time.