Company to pay €45k to manager made redundant during lockdown

Redundancies should have been treated in way that reflected ‘extraordinary times’

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 adjudicator wrote that the government had made an "extraordinary intervention" to subsidise wages and that the employer was "expected to follow suit" by treating layoff 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 Workplace Relations Commission 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 was handed final notice of redundancy on May 29th 2020 after three consultation meetings before appealing unsuccessfully in June.

Mr O’Farrell’s line manager told the WRC that the firm’s business had “collapsed” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said a racing festival at which the firm provided catering services was cancelled, along with a golf tournament, which he called a “knock-out blow”.

The firm handled just two small events in 2020, the WRC was told.

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

The witness said he had taken over the running of the company and it “might never recover”.

Ibec representative Fergus Dwyer, who appeared for the company, argued it was a “proper and fair process” arising from the fall-off in business because of the lockdown.

“It was clear that the need for the complainant’s role had substantially diminished as a result of sports events not proceeding,” he said in submission.

Mr O’Farrell said there was a “lack of process” and a “lack of clarity” which left him feeling “undervalued” – and argued the consultation process was a “tick-box exercise”.

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

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.