Aramark must pay €45,000 to employee made redundant during first lockdown

Workplace Relations Commission finds catering manager was unfairly dismissed

A manager at catering firm Aramark has been awarded €45,000 in compensation for unfair dismissal after a ruling that his redundancy during the first pandemic lockdown was "premature".

In his decision a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) adjudicator wrote that the Government had made an "extraordinary intervention" to subsidise wages, and that the employer was "expected to follow suit" by treating lay-off and redundancy in a way that would have reflected the "extraordinary times".

Darragh O'Farrell had complained under the Unfair Dismissals Act against Campbell Catering Ltd, trading as Aramark Ireland, where he had worked since 2017 as a general manager in charge of a team of up to 100 workers at large sporting events.

The company, a specialist outdoor catering firm operating as part of the wider Aramark group, denied unfair dismissal, and argued Mr O’Farrell’s role was redundant as a result of the impact of the pandemic.

Mr O’Farrell told the WRC at a hearing last June that he was paid most of his salary in the initial phase of lockdown and continued to attend work until the site was shut down.

He said he went on sick leave on March 27th, 2020, for medical treatment and returned a month later and was placed on lay-off the day he returned.

He was handed final notice of redundancy on May 29th that year after three consultation meetings before appealing unsuccessfully in June – with the entire process conducted via online calls.

Mr O’Farrell’s line manager told the WRC that the firm’s business had “collapsed” as a result of the pandemic.

The line manager’s evidence was that he kept in touch with his staff during their layoff via online calls, meaning Mr O’Farrell was kept aware of the business situation and its financial effects.

A HR manager gave evidence that Mr O’Farrell got to the first stage of a recruitment process for a general manager role in catering at a hospital in Galway, but that the role was filled by an external applicant in autumn 2020.

Mr O’Farrell said his employer “did not explain why the role was redundant” during the consultation process.

Three alternative roles offered by the employer were “not suitable”, with one “sold to him in a negative way” as there was a 33 per cent pay cut, no company van and a 4am start. “There was no meeting half way on these proposals,” Mr O’Farrell said.

He argued the consultation process was a “tick-box exercise”.

Flexible

"Overall I find that the complainant's dismissal was an unfair dismissal," wrote adjudicating officer Kevin Baneham in a decision published on Thursday.

It was inaccurate for the firm to consider Mr O’Farrell’s role “unique” when he was “contractually obliged to be flexible in other roles and other locations” and had done so before, the adjudicator wrote.

The redundancy process was carried out in a short time period which “did not reflect the extraordinary circumstances of the time” or the “inevitable lack of alternatives”, Mr Baneham wrote.

He wrote that there were “potentially many growing parts of the business” and that Mr O’Farrell should have been treated the same as a chef who was laid off at the same time but was brought in to fill in for appropriate short-term vacancies.

There would have been “no cost to the respondent” to keep Mr O’Farrell on because of the State employment supports available at the time.

“The wage subsidy was an extraordinary intervention by government, reflecting extraordinary times. The employer can be expected to follow suit and treat lay-off and redundancy in a way to reflect the extraordinary times,” he wrote.

He ruled Mr O’Farrell had been unfairly dismissed and awarded him redress of €45,000, with a further payment of €821 in respect of five days’ unpaid annual leave.