The family owned discount store operator, Mr Price has been ordered to pay €20,000 for dismissing a mother while she was on maternity leave.
The Dublin headquartered Mr Price operates 60 stores around the country and in a case before the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), Adjudicator, Penelope McGrath found that Mr Price discriminated on the grounds of gender against Elena Balan under the Employment Equality Act when dismissing her while on maternity leave in July 2020.
Ms McGrath stated that the dismissal two months before the end of her maternity leave impacted negatively on Ms Balan and Ms Balan gave evidence that she couldn’t sleep, her breast feeding was disrupted, and she had low grade anxiety thinking she had done something wrong.
Ms McGrath has also ordered Corajio Unlimited Company - trading as Mr Price and owned by the Howth based Crinion family - to pay Mr Balan an additional €780 in lieu of notice.
Back pain issues
Ms McGrath stated that Ms Balan’s dismissal took place when she had simply indicated that she may not be in a position to immediately return to the workplace at the end of her maternity leave due to ongoing back pain issues arising from her pregnancy and continuing after the recent birth of her child.
The move to dismiss Ms Balan was sparked by "a misunderstanding" from "a friendly chat" Ms Balan had with her boss during a shopping visit to the store she worked at with her husband and their new baby in July 2020.
Ms Balan ran into the store manager who was on the shop floor and Ms Balan told her boss that she was still having difficulty with her back and that she might have to get her GP to certify her as not fit to return to work at the end of her maternity leave in September.
Ms Balan said that she suggested she might have to return on the basis of coming in for half days and her boss seemed very relaxed about this.
However, on September 3rd a new store manager told Ms Balan by phone that she would be getting her final payslip which would be self-explanatory in terms in that it would record what was owed.
Ms Balan asked why she was getting this now and was told because her name was no longer on the data base and her employment was terminated.
Ms Balan was shocked at this and asked why she had been dismissed and the new store manager suggested that she had quit her job, but the new store manager also admitted that she did not know the answer and that it had not been up to her.
Ms Balan described herself to be “frozen” with the shock of this conversation and was “in a state of shock”.
Ms Balan emailed work to say she never said she would quit.
In an email on September 4th, the new manager states, "If you want to work here after you feel better you can come back here, I will be happy to have you back here any time.”
In an email on September 14th the store manager who had the July 2020 shop floor conversation with Ms Balan said, “As far as I understood leaving our conversation in the store, you wanted to leave and receive the holiday hours owed to you. We would be more than happy if you could stay with us here and return when you are able to do so.”
Mr Price denied discrimination and in her findings, Ms McGrath stated that accepts that there was a misunderstanding as to what Ms Balan was or what not asking for in the July 2020 casual conversation with her then Store Manager.
Ms McGrath stated that no blame lies with Ms Balan and that her then store manager decided of his own volition to terminate her employment with a view, he says, to ensuring Ms Balan get whatever holiday pay was then due to her.
Jumped the gun
The store manager said in evidence he had jumped the gun as he had not received a letter from her confirming a resignation.
Ms McGrath stated that “at the very least, I would have thought that a manager would double-check that an employee – particularly one out on protected maternity leave- was sure she wanted to quit based on a brief conversation had in the course of an unscheduled meeting at the back of the tills”.
Ms McGrath stated: “In fact, there is a legal obligation on an employer to state in writing why an employee out on Maternity Leave is being terminated.”
Ms McGrath further stated that “what’s more surprising in this situation is the fact that even when the mistake had clearly been identified, the two Mr Price managers double down on the mistake and fail to rectify the error by immediately and apologetically restoring Ms Balan’s position on the database with retrospective effect.
Ms McGrath stated: “Had they done this, they would have ensured no detriment to the Complainant in terms of service, her seniority, and whatever other benefits might accrue to her in the workplace based on tenure longevity. It might also have gone some way towards ameliorating the upset she experienced during a period of protected leave.
Ms McGrath stated: “I accept that both parties give an assurance that she will be welcome back, but that is not the same as putting her back in the position she would have been in had the termination not occurred.”