The actions of UCC student centre bosses in dismissing a hairdresser without consultation, notice pay or any mention of a redundancy payment were “entirely unreasonable” and “unlawful”, the Workplace Relations Commission has found.
The tribunal found the student centre had dismissed a woman, whom one of its witnesses had called a “valued” employee, “summarily and without notice” and without following any standard practices for a legal termination.
In a decision published on Tuesday the WRC has upheld two complaints brought under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 and the Minimum Notice & Terms of Employment Act 1973 by Tracey Ring against Student Facilities & Services (UCC) DAC, trading as Unisalon at the Student Centre at University College Cork.
The student centre’s management had denied her complaints and insisted it had paid Ms Ring everything it owed her.
The tribunal heard the complainant had went on layoff and got the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) in March 2020, when the salon was closed on public health grounds due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The tribunal heard Ms Ring was told she wasn’t needed immediately when the salon reopened with a “skeleton staff” in July that year.
Terry Brennan, general manager of student facilities and services at UCC, said he told Ms Ring in September 2020 that the company “couldn’t guarantee her position”.
Questioned on this point, Ms Ring said she was assured “they’d keep me updated” but said she did not receive a subsequent letter from a company representative in July 2021.
Ms Ring said phoned the salon to inquire further when she realised her TWSS payments had stopped in September 2021, as she said she had received “no contact” from the company.
She said she was “taken aback” and “vomiting” when she found out her job was gone by phoning the salon.
She said her phone had been broken at one point and that she had suffered a bereavement during the period in question.
The adjudicating officer, Lefre de Burgh, questioned the respondent as to why nothing was put in writing in September 2020.
Mr Brennan, who had made pleadings on behalf of the company, said Ms Ring was “very difficult to contact”.
By August 2021 the following year, Mr Brennan said it was clear the salon’s business had collapsed, with turnover dropping from €76,000 to just €20,000 because of the restrictions.
He said it was clear the business was “never going to recover”, could only support the employment of two senior stylists, and that it “had to lay [Ms Ring] off”.
Mr Brennan said the company made a final payment of €469.60 on September 3rd 2021, making provision for holiday pay.
Under questioning from the complainant’s solicitor, he said the decision to end Ms Ring’s employment “wasn’t made until I wrote to her” in July 2021.
Ms Ring’s evidence was that she never received the letter.
Mr Brennan said he took the decision after making “reasonable attempts” to contact Ms Ring and that the management “had to act in the interests of the business”.
It was put to Mr Brennan that an employee was entitled to a right of appeal in the circumstances.
He replied that Ms Ring had been “laid off and not dismissed”.
Martin A. Harvey & Co Solicitors, the firm representing Ms Ring in the case, said its client had been dismissed “without any adherence whatsoever to natural justice and fair procedures”.
“The respondent simply terminated [her] employment on September 24th, 2021 retrospectively, without notice and without any regard for her rights,” it submitted.
The law firm said its client denied that a genuine restructuring of the company did exist and said that if it did, she ought to have been notified that her role was at risk, engaged with in a consultation on redundancy considering alternatives and offered an appeal mechanism.
It added that a redundancy payment was “never mentioned” to Ms Ring, who had worked at the salon since July 2018.
The adjudicating officer noted that the Mr Brennan, in his evidence and his submissions on behalf of the company, “used the words ‘laid off’, ‘let go’ and ‘terminated’ interchangeably”.
“An employer does not have a free hand to act as it pleases. An employer is bound to act within the requirements of the law, irrespective of the circumstances the employer is navigating,” wrote the adjudicating officer, Ms de Burgh.
She added that the purpose of paying employers wage subsidies was to “maintain the employment relationship”.
“There are simply no lawful circumstances in which the Respondent can treat an employee in the manner in which it treated the Complainant. It falls to me to consider whether the dismissal was both substantively and procedurally fair. I find that it was neither,” she wrote.
“I find that the employer’s conduct in this instance was entirely unreasonable and is unlawful,” she added.
She ordered the employer to pay Ms Ring €1,920 for unfair dismissal and a further €480 as notice pay – a sum totalling €2,400, or ten weeks’ pay for the complainant.