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Irish employer must pay €10,000 to woman in face mask discrimination case

A woman is set to receive a payout of €10,000 from her former employer after it imposed an “absolutist” face mask policy during the Covid-19 pandemic, and did not accept that she had a medical condition which should have exempted her from having to wear a face mask.

Kamila Pietrzk, who has an anxiety disorder, took the discrimination case against car parts company G Bruss Gmbh Dichtungstechnik – a case which was described as “without precedent” by an adjudicator. The company, which employs up to 200 people in Sligo Town, denied discrimination, as reported here by The Irish Independent.

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) this week found that the woman had provided a medical certificate to her employer shortly after the dispute began, but her employer failed to accept the certificate and pass it on to the company’s own occupational health doctor, The Independent reports.

Ms Pietrzyk secured the order against her employer under the Employment Equality Act 1998 in a decision published by the WRC on Monday. The WRC concluded that her case was “without precedent” because she had medical evidence of her disability, along with the fact she had been able to establish she had been denied “reasonable accommodation” after putting her employer on notice.

The Irish Independent reports that Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) representative Terry MacNamara, who appeared for the firm, said the first time the employer knew the worker suffered from an anxiety disorder was when a report was provided to the firm by a consultant psychiatrist in June 2021 – more than 6 months after Ms Pietrzyk had been signed off on sick leave.

Yet, a note from Ms Pietrzyk’s GP from 21 December 2020 was included by IBEC in its submissions to the tribunal, stated that the employee was at the time “unable to wear face covering due to her medical condition”.

However, the company has insisted it never had the note, and that it was a copy of a document which had been submitted by the trade union. This resulted in the adjudicating officer in the case taking evidence on whether the note had in fact been given to the company at a review meeting, back in January 2021, during a review meeting with the car part maker’s health and safety manager.

In her testimony, Ms Pietrzyk said she had “offered the GP letter” to the company’s health and safety manager during the meeting, but was informed the company “would not take” the letter, as management “had their own report from the company doctor,” The Irish Independent and The Irish Times reported.

Ms Deirdre McNulty, the health and safety manager, told the tribunal she did not recall the letter being offered.

Giving evidence, Ms Pietrzyk said she had initially tried to explain she had an anxiety disorder to her supervisors back in November 2020 after the company announced a mandatory policy regarding wearing face masks. She said she was referred to an occupational health assessor the following month.

In a note opened to the tribunal, an assessor detailed how the complainant spoke of how she suffered from symptoms of stress when wearing a face mask and that she associated this with a past trauma. 

The following Monday, Ms Pietrzyk ended up phoning in sick, with her GP citing “distress” as the reason. She did not return to work until she found new employment in September 2021, The Irish Independent reported.

In its report, the paper also said that Ms Pietrzyk’s trade union rep. Vernon Hegarty of SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union, said the car parts company rejected SIPTU’s proposals to deal with the matter, which included adjusting Ms Pietrzyk’s start and end times, or her doing antigen tests by way of reasonable accommodation.   

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, in the tribunal heard

The complainant’s trade union rep, Vernon Hegarty of Siptu, said that before the trade union 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, however, 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.

The company said its face mask policy had been implemented on public health grounds, and argued that Ms Pietrzyk had already declined its suggestion that she wear a visor instead of a mask.

However, Mr Hegarty of SIPTU said the company had adopted an “irrationally and singularly absolutist” policy on face masks.

“What distinguishes the facts in this case from others,” adjudicating officer Janet Hughes wrote in her decision, “[…] 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”.

“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 added.

Ms Hughes 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 to make up for a loss of earnings.

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