A Waterford businessman’s hotel has been ordered to pay the hotelier’s sister the maximum compensation allowed of €21,843 for her “cruel” unfair dismissal.
At the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) adjudicator, Patsy Doyle ordered the Seamus Walsh-owned Waterford Castle Hotel and Golf Club pay Bernadette Walsh a total of €23,808 for five workplace breaches including unfair dismissal.
In relation to the unfair dismissal of Ms Walsh while on sick leave in September 2019, Ms Doyle said that “this dismissal is a manifestation of a zero culture of fair procedures or natural justice. The familial connection underpinning this makes it even more disrespectful”.
Ms Walsh had left a $100,000 (€93,000) job in the Bahamas to return to her brother’s resort business in March 2015 on the minimum wage of €16,000 per annum and occupied roles such as resort executive, company director and later, general manager.
Her brother, Seamus had bought the hotel resort, which sits on a private island, from the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) for a reported €6 million.
In 2019, Ms Walsh sought a pay increase of €49,000 to €65,000 per annum.
Solicitor for Ms Walsh, David Gaffney said that Ms Walsh was concerned at the number of hours she was putting into the business.
Ms Walsh told the hearing that she adopted a “girl Friday persona” filling in where the service required.
The remote WRC hearing heard that Ms Walsh’s request for a pay increase was refused by her brother, Seamus Walsh who is based primarily in Melbourne, Australia and did not attend the WRC hearing.
Now back living and working in the US, Ms Walsh told the hearing that she worked an average of six-days a week as she oversaw all aspects of the business and this covered a three-hour commitment on Sundays.
At hearing, Ms Walsh denied the existence of family conflict.
Ms Walsh told the hearing that she had been “shocked” by her dismissal in September 2019.
She said that she had tried to advance the case for her hours and salary at an August 20th 2019 meeting Mr Walsh but the meeting started on wages and then drifted on to operational matters with Mr Walsh allegedly telling her that she “was the biggest problem, you are too straight”
Ms Walsh said that after being dismissed, she had lived on her savings and job seekers’ benefit before securing a new job in March, 2021.
The chief financial officer at the firm, Louise Hurley described a “breakdown in staff relations” between Ms Walsh and Mr Walsh which by August, 2019 had “quite a detrimental effect on the business”.
A witness for the company, Ms Hurley said Ms Walsh had refrained from speaking with Mr Walsh, which she said “was unviable from an operational point of view”.
Ms Hurley said that during her employment, Ms Walsh had the full run of a three bedroomed luxurious lodge in addition to a company car and the firm put a value of €4,800 per annum on the accommodation.
The hotel firm accepted that an unfair dismissal had taken place and at the hearing the firm argued that Ms Walsh’s €16,000 salary was designed as a threshold for tax purposes.
The hotel accepted that there was no substantially fair ground for Ms Walsh’s dismissal and that it failed to adopt a fair dismissal procedure in relation to the Complainant’s dismissal.
The company said that by way of explanation rather than excuse, Mr Walsh was experiencing operative difficulties arising from Ms Walsh’s employment, growing familial conflict and that familial conflict seeping into corporate matters within the firm.
The hotel stated that these issues informed Mr Walsh’s decision to dismiss Ms Walsh.
In her findings, Ms Doyle found that when unfairly dismissing Ms Walsh, the company “reneged on their own procedures when they summarily dismissed the highest ranking and lowest paid member of the management team”.
Ms Doyle went on to say that the impact of the decision to dismiss Ms Walsh “in such a summary judgment style was cruel and the fact that the letter of dismissal reflects the following phrase — ‘This decision is no reflection whatsoever on your competence or capability. Thank you for your service and loyalty; however, on the expiration of one month from the date of this letter your employment with us will end’.”
The WRC adjudicator further found that the hotel firm “broke all the rules of fair procedures and natural justice in the dismissal of September 2nd 2019″.
Ms Doyle stated that the decision “was a unilateral action not channelled through the Board and on the balance of probabilities reflected operational concerns” signalled by Ms Hurley’s reference to Mr Walsh and Ms Walsh not speaking.
She said that the operational concerns were not spelt out by the hotel firm and Ms Walsh was not given time to address matters to improve.
Ms Doyle also found that then serving company director Ms Walsh “was unfairly dismissed and the dismissal disproportionate and without a stated reason”.
The adjudicator also found that the case “requires that I do justice to the parties in applying the maximum compensation permitted to me as there is no viable means of return to the business in this case”.
Earlier in her findings, Ms Doyle stated that she found “it unusual that anyone would leave a $100,000 employment in the sun for a sub minimum wage and a vague variety in titled positions at a family hotel”.
he appreciated that the business was rescued from Nama or Receivership, “but I identified early in the case a lack of foundation to the business enterprise which seemed to be home to a high attrition rate of key staff and changed titles”.
Ms Doyle said that the parties presented “a very unusual employment relationship before the WRC” stating that Ms Walsh was simply appointed to the role by familial patronage. “For me, that amounted to an almost spiritual appointment.”
The adjudicator said that none of the pre-employment rituals were followed, eg an interview, employment checks, a visible match fit of the candidate to the job or an induction.
In addition to the €21,843 award for unfair dismissal, Ms Doyle also awarded €750 for an annual leave breach; €600 for two rest periods breaches and €615.30 for a statement of terms of employment breach.
Ms Doyle recorded that in reference to the clear familial links in the case and the sensitivities that may flow into an employment relationship, she offered the parties time at the commencement of the hearing if they wished to discuss issues. “The parties availed of the time but did not record a mutually acceptable resolution and the case progressed as planned,” she said.