A car parts maker accused of imposing an “absolutist” face mask policy during the Covid-19 pandemic has been ordered to pay a worker with an anxiety disorder €10,000 for discrimination in a case described as “without precedent” by an adjudicator.
The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found the woman had offered a medical certificate to her employer shortly after the dispute arose but that it had failed to accept it and pass it on to its own occupational health doctor.
Kamila Pietrzyk secured the order against G Bruss Gmbh Dichtungstechnik under the Employment Equality Act 1998 in a decision just published by the WRC.
It found Ms Pietrzyk’s case was “without precedent” as unlike other people alleging discrimination over a Covid-19 face mask policy, she had medical evidence of her disability and had been able to establish that she had been denied reasonable accommodation after putting her employer on notice
The company, which makes precision seals for the automotive sector, employs about 200 people at a site on the Finiskiln Road in Sligo Town. It denied discrimination.
IBEC representative Terry MacNamara, who appeared for the firm, said the first time it became aware Ms Pietrzyk had an anxiety disorder was when a report was provided to it by a consultant psychiatrist in June 2021 – more than six months after the complainant had been signed off on sick leave.
However, a GP note dated December 21st 2020 was included by IBEC in its submissions to the tribunal stating the complainant is “unable to wear face covering due to her medical condition”.
The company maintained it never had the note and that it was a copy of a document submitted by the trade union, prompting the adjudicating officer to take evidence on whether it had been provided to the company at a review meeting its health and safety manager, Deirdre McNulty, in January 2021.
Ms Pietrzyk said in her testimony that she “offered the GP letter” to Ms McNulty at the meeting but was told the company “would not take it” as management “had their own report from the company doctor”.
Ms McNulty told the tribunal she “does not recall an offer”.
The complainant said in evidence to the tribunal that she had previously tried to explain her anxiety disorder to her supervisors after the company set down a mandatory face covering policy in November 2020 and was referred to an occupational health assessor the following month.
“[She] tells me that she suffers symptom[s] of stress when wearing a face covering and that she associates this with a past trauma. I am not in a position to verify this,” the assessor wrote in a note opened to the tribunal.
Ms Pietrzyk phoned in sick the following Monday, with her GP citing “distress”, and did not return to work before she found new employment in September 2021, the tribunal heard
The complainant’s trade union rep, Vernon Hegarty of Siptu, said that before it got involved in the case in April 2021, Ms Pietrzyk was “confused” about the “exact legal position” and cited “online sources which were spreading ill-informed views”.
He said his client had sent in a valid statutory demand for information prior to its involvement.
Mr Hegarty said the company rejected the union’s proposals on making adjustments to Ms Pietrzyk’s start and end times or having her do antigen tests by way of reasonable accommodation.
Mr MacNamara said Bruss’s HR manager got a phone call from a “well-known campaigner” against mask-wearing and public health measures early in February 2021 in connection with Ms Pietrzyk’s case.
The campaigner had claimed he “knew a lot about the law” and called the face mask policy “illegal”, Mr MacNamara added.
Bruss’s case was that its face mask policy had been introduced on public health grounds and that Ms Pietrzyk had already refused its suggestion that she could wear a visor by way of reasonable accommodation.
Mr Hegarty said the company’s position on face masks had been “irrationally and singularly absolutist”.
“What distinguishes the facts in this case from others ... is the fact of a disability being not only claimed but being evidenced in this case and that disability being accepted by the respondent, or at least not disputed by medical evidence,” adjudicating officer Janet Hughes wrote in her decision.
Ms Hughes had asked the company to submit an internal report which followed the January 2021 review meeting, and wrote in her decision that this backed up the complainant’s testimony.
“Evidently the complainant offered the respondent her own medical advice concerning her disability, but this was not taken by the respondent and not sent to the occupational health doctor for his consideration,” Ms Hughes wrote.
She upheld the complaint, but found that the company “was acting on a good faith basis” in “unprecedented circumstances”, and ordered it to pay Ms Pietrzyk €10,000 for loss of earnings.