In a recent decision of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), the first decision of its kind since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, an employer has been ordered to pay compensation to a former employee for rejecting her request to work remotely from home during the first COVID-19 lockdown, as a result of which she was left with no option but to resign from her position.
This decision of the WRC serves as an important reminder to employers of their obligation to comply with the law arising from the implications of COVID-19. The employee in question worked as a university-based Facilities Management Service Provider, an office-based position, and together with two colleagues, she was tasked with managing thousands of students who vacated their accommodation at the start of the first lockdown.
In light of the risks posed by COVID-19, the worker, together with her two colleagues, submitted a proposal to her employer that only one worker would attend the office at any given time during lockdown, while the other two would work remotely. She advised her employer that she and her colleagues were unable to socially distance in the workplace, and that in circumstances where her husband was asthmatic, he was at particular risk from COVID-19.
However, the employer rejected this proposal, stating that the three roles were not suitable for remote working and that sufficient COVID-19 precautions, such as PPE, moving desks and the installation of screens, had been taken. The employer advised that the workers could absent themselves from work and see if they were entitled to a state benefit, if they so wished.
As a result of this decision, the employee felt that she had no option but to resign from her position, stating in an e-mail to her employer that she was “not able to manage the levels of pressure imposed by management,” and that the employer’s approach to the issue and lack of care for its employees had “been a real disappointment.”
In his ruling, WRC Adjudication Officer Mr. Kevin Baneham found in the worker’s favour. He stated that the employee, who was represented by SIPTU at the hearing, had no real option but to resign from her post following her employer’s refusal to take reasonably practicable steps to mitigate the risks posed by COVID-19 in the workplace.
He stated that “providing a safe place of work is a fundamental term of the contract of employment,” and that the employer’s failure to take reasonably practicable steps to mitigate the risk posed by COVID-19 in the workplace effectively amounted to “repudiation of contract.”
As such, Mr. Baneham awarded the worker the sum of €3,712 in compensation. It is worth noting that this award could potentially have been higher, were it not for the fact that the worker secured alternative employment within a number of weeks at a higher rate of pay.
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