Employee arrangments at Oireachtas ‘bizarre’, tribunal finds

Sacked parliamentary assistant only wanted “dignity to retire”, employment tribunal told

Wed, Dec 18, 2013, 10:50

An Employment Appeals Tribunal has labelled employee arrangements for personal assistants in the Houses of the Oireachtas as “bizarre” and “difficult”.

Penelope McGrath BL, chairwoman of a tribunal examining a claim of unfair dismissal against Independent TD Thomas Pringle, said the system was not easy.

“Whatever is going on in the Houses of the Oireachtas … it seems bizarre to me that they are doing what they are doing,” she said.

“It is very difficult for employees.”

Joan Blackbyrne, former parliamentary assistant to Mr Pringle who previously assisted former deputy Jackie Healy Rae, was paid by the Oireachtas, but was technically an employee of Mr Pringle.

Ms Blackbyrne worked for the Donegal deputy from April 2011 to January 2012. She took sick leave from her post in the summer of 2011 after having a fall in the workplace.

Mr Pringle terminated her employment by letter just before Christmas 2011, giving her six week’s notice because she had “ten year’s service”.

Ms Blackbyrne told the tribunal yesterday she believed she lost her job because she was sick.

“I still feel that today,” she said. “All I wanted was the dignity to retire.”

She claimed by sacking her, Mr Pringle had prevented that. She also said she was suffering “very badly from depression” after losing her job.

And she said she had believed she was employed by the Oireachtas.

“It’s like working in a factory you have a boss and another boss and another boss; I just presumed that was the way it was,” she said.

Ms McGrath pointed out, however, that the tribunal had already made a preliminary decision on who Ms Blackbyrne’s employer was.

It had written to the parties involved in the case in September to say it ruled Ms Blackbyrne was not an employee of the Oireachtas and was directly employed by Mr Pringle and previously Mr Healy Rae.

Mr Pringle, who represented himself and was alone at the tribunal, said he had 12 months from the date of Ms Blackbyrne’s appointment to decide whether he would keep her on or opt for a “vouched allowance”. He chose the vouched allowance option.

The system means a deputy can employ any number of staff on a part-time basis to the value of one full-time parliamentary assistant’s €41,000 wage.

Mr Pringle also said Ms Blackbyrne’s case should be dismissed as her application to pursue him had been outside the statutory six-month period. And he pointed out that Ms Blackbyrne had been paid redundancy by the Oireachtas.

Brendan Frawley, solicitor for Ms Blackbyrne pointed out that her application to pursue the Oireachtas, now dismissed, had been in time and asked the tribunal to implement their powers to extend the time period for the application against Mr Pringle in “exceptional circumstances”.

The tribunal adjourned to consider its decision and said it would notify the parties in writing.

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