Aware NI ordered to pay ex-employee almost £10k over discrimination case – Belfast Telegraph

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Aware NI said it was "extremely disappointed" by the tribunal ruling
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Andrew Madden Twitter Email
September 09 2021 06:24 AM
Anti-depression charity Aware NI has been ordered to pay a former employee almost £10,000 after a tribunal found she had been unlawfully discriminated against over her disability.
Michelle Byrne, who worked in communications for the charity, took a case against her former employer over a dispute regarding a request to vary her work pattern. The case was heard over three days last month.
Ms Byrne worked for Aware NI from March 2013 to November 2019. She was diagnosed with the bowel condition ulcerative colitis (UC) in October 2017, a condition that causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract which can be worsened by stress.
The tribunal heard that the claimant was off on maternity leave in 2017/18, an absence which was extended by a period of sick leave due to her UC diagnosis.
Ms Byrne met with Aware's head of corporate services, Patricia McDaid, on August 2, 2018, to discuss her return to work and Ms Byrne requested a variation to her work schedule, to four days a week, with one of those working from home, instead of five days in the office.
The tribunal noted that this variation was "apparently granted" on a permanent basis, although "the basis on which that variation had been granted and the terms of that variation are in dispute”.
Ms McDaid told Ms Byrne that the four-day working week request had been only agreed on a trial basis for six months and that her application to work at home for one of those four days had been refused.
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Some weeks later, Ms Byrne was granted one day working at home each week up to Christmas 2018 and this variation, including the four-day working week, was extended on several occasions.
The claimant then sought to have the variations in her work schedule made permanent, but this request was refused.
An occupational health appointment was arranged by Ms McDaid for Ms Byrne on September 19, 2019. In her referral letter, the only reference to the claimant's disability was that "we are aware that Michelle has an underlying health condition but she has not made us aware of any impact on her mental health and/or within work”.
“Background is that the Agency needs Michelle to return to full-time hours and we have been conducting a job review process," the referral letter added.
Occupational health noted Ms Byrne's UC condition in its report, stating it is triggered by stress, which had been brought about by her work situation.
"She would be fit for work immediately if she were to be supported in returning to work on the same conditions as previously with clear clarification as to the terms and conditions. If she were able to return in this arrangement I suggest she has a phased return to work with stress risk assessment taking place with the manager.”
Following this, Aware NI wrote to the claimant on October 2, 2019 to confirm that as a result of the occupational health report they would like her to return on a phased basis with a view to her being a full-time worker by October 21 – less than three weeks later. Ms Byrne then resigned on October 16, 2019.
The tribunal concluded that Ms Byrne was “constructively and unfairly dismissed” and was discriminated against for reasons relating to her disability. As a result of the decision, Ms Byrne was awarded compensation totalling £9,920.
Aware NI said it was extremely disappointed by the ruling and all matters relating to its employees are taken seriously and at all times we seek to treat our colleagues with dignity, courtesy, and respect.
“It is unfortunate, in this instance, the claimant did not engage in our internal processes with a view to resolving the matter to everyone’s satisfaction and instead chose to proceed with an industrial tribunal, giving the organisation no opportunity to openly discuss options with the claimant,” the charity said.
“We are committed and focused to ensure all our colleagues are aware of our policies and procedures through regular training to build and foster a culture that reflects our values. The board of Aware NI is considering the ruling and the appropriate next steps.”
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