€61,000 award in pregnancy discrimination case

A number of recent decisions indicate that employers continue to misunderstand or ignore their employees’ right to return to work after maternity leave.

In the most recent decision, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ordered a rental company to pay €61,000 to a general manager. The WRC determined she was ‘effectively demoted’ when she returned from maternity leave.

‘Effectively demoted’

The company employed the claimant as a general manager on a gross annual salary of €70,000. Following her return from maternity leave, the employee disagreed with the way her employer behaved toward her.

She gave evidence to the WRC alleging that the owner of the company told her “there was big changes around here” during her maternity leave. They advised her that a reorganisation of duties would see a colleague take up a role from where she would “oversee everyone’s work”.

As a result, the employee felt that she had been effectively demoted. She felt the reallocation of duties amounted to gender-based discrimination relating to her pregnancy.

The Adjudication Officer (AO) found in favour of the employee in finding that her role substantially changed on her return from maternity leave. The AO noted that her general manager duties were more akin to those of a general operative.

The AO also reprimanded the owner of the company for speaking to the employee in a manner that is unacceptable in a work environment.

The AO ordered the employer to pay the employee €53,000 in compensation for the discriminatory treatment she suffered.

Victimisation claim

The employer was also unsuccessful in defending a claim of victimisation. The employer removed the employee’s company mobile phone privileges. In the circumstances of the case, this amounted to victimisation under the Employment Equality Acts.

The AO ordered the employer to pay the employee €8,000 in compensation for the victimisation claim.

Risks on return to work from maternity leave

Maternity protection legislation gives women-specific legal protections. Among the most explicit rights under maternity protection laws is the right to return to the same job. Upon return, the same terms and conditions should apply.

It remains unclear whether employers are not aware of this right, or whether they simply misunderstand its scope. Either way, many recent claims in this area have made their way to the WRC or been settled.

The WRC is particularly vigilant to prevent employers from circumventing maternity protection laws by allowing the employee to return to the same role, while simultaneously watering down her duties.

If your employee returns from maternity leave, changing her duties and responsibilities can have repercussions. If done in a way that diminishes her role, your business is at risk of having to defend an expensive discrimination claim.

It is, of course, possible that a role will change to some degree during a period of maternity leave. To cover this situation, there is one exception to the rule that the employee must return to the same position following maternity leave.

Maternity protection laws state that if it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ for your employee to return to the position she occupied before taking maternity leave, you must provide ‘suitable alternative work’.

You must be particularly mindful that the employee does not feel that she has suffered a change in status. She may also feel she now occupies a position more junior than the one she held before maternity leave. If this does happen, your organisation will be heavily scrutinised by the WRC if a claim is lodged.

There is also no cap on gender-based discrimination awards. An order of compensation for a gender-based claim could cost your organisation dearly.

Still unsure of your duties to your employees under maternity protection laws? Contact the advice line on +353 1 886 0350 to speak with one of our experts.

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