A former Limerick Leader photographer has told the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) that he was unfairly dismissed after being left on lay-off since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic with no clarity from his bosses on his employment status.
Michael Cowey has made a claim under the Unfair Dismissals Act against Iconic Newspapers Ltd, arguing he believed himself to have been dismissed from employment — having had no confirmation on his status since being placed on lay-off when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
At the start of a hearing in Dublin on Tuesday, his legal team withdrew a parallel claim for statutory redundancy.
The company says Mr Cowey was only ever a contractor for the newspaper, who submitted invoices for his work, and never an employee.
A legal dispute arose over the question of who the correct respondent was in the matter, and whether Mr Cowey had brought his complaint too late to have it heard by the comission.
Solicitor Kieran Kelly, for the respondent, said that Iconic Newspapers was a holding company with no employees, and that employment in the publishing group was with Formpress Publishing Ltd.
He said Mr Cowey’s lawyers had made a submission to the effect that their client had “commenced employment with Iconic Newspapers in 2008″.
“The reality is in fact, the Limerick Leader was published by the Johnston Press Ltd and there was a transfer of employees in 2014. All employees and staff were informed of this,” he said.
Adjudicating officer Kara Turner noted that both Iconic and Formpress traded from the same address on Hatch Street in Dublin 2 and had common directors — one of whom, Iconic Newspapers’ finance manager Eugene McCooey, was present at hearing.
“Mr McCooey is here as a witness for Iconic Newspapers. [Formpress] has not been put on notice,” Mr Kelly said.
Ms Turner heard an application from the complainant to amend the complaint form to name Formpress Publishing Ltd as the respondent, but reserved her position and moved to take evidence on the question of when Mr Cowey said he had been dismissed by the company.
Constantine McMahon, who appeared for the complainant, said it was their case that his client had been on lay-off since March 16th, 2020, and had not had his employment terminated by the company at this point.
“In the intervening period between that date and March 2022, there was zero clarity as to his status — only that he’d been laid off,” Mr McMahon said.
“Mr Cowey’s contract was terminated on 16th March 2020 and he was let go, and he knew he was let go. There’s a confirmation email in my submissions,” Mr Kelly said.
Mr Cowey gave evidence that he received a phone call from the paper’s assistant editor telling him: “Mike, I’m sorry, but your name has come on as well.”
“I said fine, no worries — I thought at this point it would be two to three weeks,” he said.
He said there was further correspondence in respect of money he was owed in arrears but that after seeking a letter to confirm his status for a social welfare application, there was “absolutely no reply”.
He engaged a solicitor in December 2021, having attended union chapel meetings up to that point with colleagues “trying to find out our status”. His solicitor’s letters went unanswered too, he added.
“I never had the feeling I was dismissed. All I wanted was a simple thing: ‘Goodbye, you’re gone’,” he said.
Mr Cowey said he received a phone call from another director who told him “If we bring you back you won’t be back under the same deal,” he said. He said he accepted the offer but that he had “still heard nothing” about that a year on from that phone call.
Mr Kelly put it to the complainant in cross-examination that he had written to the finance manager, Mr McCooey, on March 24th, 2020 telling him: “I have been let go.”
“I know what it says,” Mr Cowey said. He said there was “confusion” over the email as he believed he had written it to another former colleague. The complainant maintained the position that he was referring to lay-off.
Mr Kelly went on to say that Mr Cowey had sought a letter confirming he was “no longer employed” by the respondent.
“You’re twisting words and it’s wrong. I got the message. I carried on. I wanted €50 extra in my pension — that’s why I wrote the letter,” Mr Cowey said. “No one ever confirmed to me that I was let go,” he added.
Mr Kelly put it to him that he had been offered freelance work at the Leader but didn’t say at that point: “But sure, I’m an employee there.” Mr Cowey said the offer that was put to him was: “When we bring you back you won’t be on the same money.”
Ms Turner closed the hearing to consider the preliminary matters. “If I’m minded to amend the respondent’s name, and if the claim is in time, [if] it warrants another hearing it would be reconvened,” she said.