Employee had no option but to resign
An office-based employee who stated that she had no option but to resign from her job during the first Covid-19 lockdown after her employer rejected her plea to work remotely from home has won her case in the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
The WRC ordered that the employer to pay the Operations Coordinator €3,712 compensation for what it determined was her unfair dismissal on 12 May 2019.
The award could have been higher except the employee secured subsequent alternative employment at a higher pay rate within a number of weeks of tendering her resignation.
The company, a university-based facilities management service provider, refused to accept the suggestion by the employee and her two colleagues that they would rotate their attendance at the office with two of them working from home (remotely) and one in attendance on a rotation basis.
The employee was concerned about her increased exposure to the risk of Covid-19 infection if she attended the office and was particularly concerned as her husband is an asthmatic patient.
In the ruling, the WRC found that the office-based employee had “no real option but to resign” as the employer failed to take any steps to reduce the risk of infection of Covid-19 in the workplace.
Health and safety issue – breach of terms of contract of employment
The WRC said the employer failed to abide by the terms of the employee’s employment contract in so far as they failed to provide her with a safe place to work and did not actively seek to minimise risk. They refused to consider implementation of the practical steps suggested by the office-based employee. She had clearly explained her grievance and had suggested a safer way to work.
The WRC highlighted the duties of both the employer and the employee, under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act.
The employees were not able to socially distance due to the size of the office so were working in close proximity to one another. The employee lodged a formal grievance on 30th April stating “All three of us have family members in the ‘at risk’ category and we are concerned about the health of our family members as well as our own well-being.”
Concerns were flagged to their employer at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak but the three employees said “nothing was done about it and zero care and consideration was given back. Most of our work can be completed from home, but if there are issues that require our presence there will be one coordinator in the office to address them. This measure will minimise the infection risk and will help us keep our family and ourselves protected.“
The employer had rejected the work from home proposal stating the three roles were not suitable for remote working, that they have taken Covid-19 workplace precautions, including PPE, installation of screens, warning tape, etc. The MD told the hearing that it was a very busy time for the company and that everyone’s attendance in the office was needed. He confirmed that Covid-19 had not been contracted by any staff member.
The office-based employee resigned on 12th May, highlighting the negative effects on her health and well-being. She stated she was disappointed by her employer’s approach to the situation and felt disheartened and insecure and that she had been left with no option but to resign.
Learnings for Employers
Employers need to be very aware of their responsibilities in regards to protecting the health and safety of their employees. COVID-19 is a real and present danger, thus, employers have to really think do they really have to have employees present at work, or can practical solutions be found to minimise the risk, as it seems that it could have been in this case had the employer worked with the solution suggested by the 3 employees. In this case, the employer did not try-out the proposal at all.
The benchmark is now set and the employers must continue to evaluate the situation into 2021 as COVID-19 risk will be there for some time yet.
While this case relates to COVID-19, it’s lessons can be transferred into health and safety issues in general.
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