A maker of vaccine manufacturing equipment supplying leading producers Pfizer and Janssen is being accused of a “sham redundancy” in dismissing an employee just months before business rebounded when Covid-19 vaccine orders surged.
Quality technician Aidan McCarthy has complained to the Workplace Relations Commission that he was unfairly dismissed by Abec Technologies Europe Ltd of the Cork Road, Fermoy, Co Cork.
Abec’s solicitor, Peter McGuinness, told a hearing last week that Mr McCarthy was selected for redundancy in a “measured and balanced way” and that his role as a quality technician inspecting incoming goods was “no longer required” because of a downturn in its stainless steel equipment manufacturing business early in the pandemic.
However Bryon Wade BL, for Mr McCarthy said it was a “sham redundancy” and that the company failed to follow proper procedures.
He said his client was well qualified for other work in the company and could have been transferred – but the company failed to consider alternative roles for him.
Giving evidence, the company’s global director of quality Matt Fetherman said Abec made equipment for the biopharmaceutical sector and had expanded its operations to Ireland seven or eight years ago, setting up in Fermoy Co Cork and Kells Co Meath.
He said the firm had two main product lines: stainless steel pressure vessels, piping and filtration systems for biopharmaceutical production using live cells; and disposable polymer containers used for similar processes.
“These are all the products that are used to be made vaccines, insulin, any kind of medicine that’s made from a live cell,” he said, adding that this included insulin for treating diabetes and vaccines.
“Obviously when the pandemic hit we quickly saw that things were slowing down. Even though we’re a biopharma company, initially with Covid things started to come to a halt very quickly,” he told Mr McGuinness.
Mr Wade, for the complainant, said that Abec had started hiring quality technicians “quite quickly” – with ads posted in October 2020 after his client was made redundant that July.
Mr Fetherman said that when Covid-19 vaccine orders increased in late 2020, Abec had to “scale up very quickly” to meet demand for the polymer bioreactor bags used to make them.
Mr Wade put it to him that other staff had been retained with a 25 per cent pay cut and reduced working hours and that this was a time of “uncertainty” in the business.
“There were other options available to your company. You could have laid this man off (a temporary measure),” he said.
“The directive to me is that I had to make head cuts so I really don’t have the choice to make other options,” replied the company manager.
‘Time of uncertainty’
“A headcount cut could include laying off, especially in a time of uncertainty. I’d put it to you that that’s the obvious thing to do,” counsel said.
“You’re asking something that’s above my pay grade,” Mr Fetherman said.
Mr Fetherman said McCarthy had “no experience” in the clean room work making polymer bioreactor bags and that it would take five or six months to get an employee up to speed.
In cross-examination, Byron Wade BL put it to Mr Fetherman that his client did have clean room experience and qualifications from previous roles.
“I’m not aware of that,” he replied. “He was not working in that area the entire time at Abec.”
“You didn’t look at his CV or resumé when you made that decision I presume,” counsel said.
“I don’t recall,” Mr Fetherman said.
Mr McGuinness, for Abec, said there was broad agreement between the parties about how the redundancy was communicated and that Abec accepted it was “less than it should have been”.
But he said the redundancy process was not directed at Mr McCarthy, who he called “a valued, qualified employee” and that the ending of his employment “falls squarely in terms of redundancy”.
However, Mr Wade told the Commission: “If they had taken a minute to look at [Mr McCarthy’s CV] they would have seen he was not the man to make redundant. They say he had no experience with us. That shouldn’t make a difference. They had the information on his personnel file,” he said.
He said a situation of uncertainty like that produced in the early months of the pandemic was “tailor-made” for a temporary layoff and that this should have been considered, along with short-time working hours as other staff were offered.
“I’m not denying that the employer was facing problems but deal with it properly. That’s what my client was entitled to,” he said.
He suggested Abec was being “run by remote control from America” and his client had been dispensed with in “a panic, perhaps because the president of the company was breathing down the manager’s neck”.
Adjudicating officer Brian Dalton adjourned the matter to consider his determination.