UCD has been ordered to pay €15,000 in compensation for dismissing a manager at the end of a contract term when she had acquired the right to a permanent role.
The Workplace Relations Commission has upheld a complaint by Dorota Bruce against her former employer, University College Dublin, under Section 14 of the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Act, 2003.
Siptu organiser Shonagh Byrne, appearing for Ms Bruce, said her client had worked for UCD since 2016 and had accrued four years' service by July 22nd, 2020 as an external relations officer with the Applied Language Centre at the university.
She said Ms Bruce had first been given an 11-month contract, followed by a three-month contract and finally a third fixed-term contract of three years starting in October 2017.
During the third contract, in June 2019, Ms Bruce requested information from UCD’s HR department on her eligibility for a contract of indefinite duration, and continued to seek updates until July 2020, Ms Byrne said, when the college said her employment would terminate at the end of the three-year contract in October 2020.
Ms Bruce then wrote back to say she believed she was entitled to a contract of indefinite duration, Ms Byrne said – and by this time the external English programme she was working on and other areas of her employment had “increased in volume”.
However on August 6th the interim manager told her the situation “did not look promising” as the two areas Ms Bruce was looking after “were facing financial difficulty”, Ms Byrne said.
Ms Bruce met the interim director that same day and he told her the contract would not be extended, at which point she lodged a grievance with the university.
UCD maintained the fixed-term contracts had fulfilled a “legitimate objective” of providing “effective and efficient administrative and support service” working in “a team in an international environment”, Ms Byrne said.
It wrote to Ms Byrne on August 21st, 2020 to say her employment was “contingent” and that “a review of local staffing needs has regrettably concluded that the requirements for the role will cease at its end date of October 1st, 2020.”
The letter said it was UCD’s position that the “objective grounds” for a fixed-term contract were valid in law and Ms Bruce had “no entitlement” to a contract of indefinite duration.
Ms Byrne argued that her client was in fact fulfilling a “permanent need” of UCD and her duties existed both before she took the job and after her contract was terminated.
“The actual reason that the complainant’s employment was terminated was a cost-saving measure,” she said, adding that failing to provide Ms Bruce with a permanent contract was “a clear and unambiguous breach of the present legislation”.
Ms Bruce said her client wanted to be reinstated.
UCD employee relations manager Gavan Stanley appeared for the university.
He said the “objective justification” in Ms Bruce’s final contract “aligned with the three-year business plan for the unit”.
The college carried out a review of the unit’s financial viability and concluded it was “not realising the market opportunity of English language teaching to international students”.
“It was decided that the unit would be disbanded and undergo an orderly wind-down,” which, he said, “coincided with the end of [Ms Bruce’s] contract – and that she received a redundancy payment.
UCD had a right to set its staffing structures and denied the end of Ms Bruce’s contract was “motivated by cost-saving concerns”, he said.
He also denied the university “ignored” Ms Bruce’s inquiries or subjected her to “inappropriate waiting times in seeking to have this matter addressed”.
In a ruling published on Tuesday, WRC adjudicating officer Brian Dolan wrote it was "difficult to see" how the objective grounds relied upon by UCD would justify a fixed-term contract and said it was clear that there was only a "brief description" of Ms Bruce's duties.
He ruled the objective grounds related to a “fixed and permanent” need of UCD, even with a review and remodel of the Applied Language Centre set to take place.
“It is difficult to imagine how the unit would not require ‘effective and efficient administrative and support service’ and for an employee to ‘work as part of a team in an international environment’ following such a review and remodel,” Mr Dolan wrote.
He also ruled that UCD could not rely on the viability report as an objective ground for establishing a fixed-term contract either, as the review process started after the objective justification was included in Ms Bruce’s contract.
Mr Dolan wrote that if staffing levels had to be reduced to meet economic goals, the university had a duty to apply the “minimum unfavourable treatment necessary” – and that it could not be said that UCD had done so in this case.
He ruled that Ms Bruce’s contract had been one of indefinite duration and that UCD had broken the law by applying a fixed term to it.
Mr Dolan accepted UCD’s evidence that the unit “no longer has any staff or students” and that reinstatement was not an option – and instead awarded Ms Bruce €15,000 in compensation.