Dismissal

Photo by Bruske Dede on Unsplash

By Helan Ali, Rebecca Brodie, Cameron Crossan, Jack Holland and Eve Richmond (Editor: SJ Crossan)

Introduction

Dismissal occurs where an employers terminates the contract of employment between themselves and the employee. There are several types of dismissal that can arise such as: fair, unfair, wrongful, summary and constructive.

Perhaps the most common mistake amongst members of the public concerning dismissal is the tendency to confuse wrongful and unfair dismissal: they are entirely separate (Crossan, 2017). An unfair dismissal is one which breaches or contravenes statute; whereas wrongful dismissal occurs when the contract of employment is breached.

In all dismissal claims, it is important to determine if the claimant is actually an employee. This status is outlined in S230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 in that the individual in question must be employed under a contract of service.

Employment law – always a tricky area to navigate as a result of its sheer volume becomes particularly difficult when it comes to the area of dismissal – as there can be a delicacy when it comes to terminating the employee’s contract. If you look at recent media stories, there are several high profile dismissal cases such as former senior civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam pursuing an unfair dismissal claim against UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel or the UK retailer, Asda (part of the Walmart group) forcing their employees to accept new contracts or to face dismissal.

Unfair dismissal

Fair dismissal occurs when there is a termination of the employment contract, but the employer has the right to act in this manner as per S98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The employer may have fair grounds to dismiss an employee under grounds of capability where the employer genuinely does not believe the employee is able to carry out their role any longer. Such a dismissal can be seen in Taylor v Alidair [1978] IRLR 82 where a pilot was dismissed from his contract after he landed a plane negligently and there was serious danger to life and limb.  The pilot’s subsequent dismissal was completely fair in the circumstances.

An employer may also have the grounds to dismiss an employee on the grounds of conduct. Generally, one act of gross misconduct could potentially result in an employee’s dismissal.  However, employers must have clear guidelines and these must be adhered to, but it does not necessarily mean that in every situation the same same outcome i.e. that of dismissal be the end result. Employers are entitled to have recourse to what is known as a reasonable band of responses, which might include the following:

  • Verbal or written warnings
  • Demotion
  • Dismissal
  • Deduction in pay (if the contract so permits)

If the employer has acted reasonably when carrying out the dismissal of the employee, there can be no overturning of that decision by an Employment Tribunal. This is regardless of whether the Tribunal would have taken a more lenient approach i.e. a preference for a final written warning over dismissal (see Iceland Frozen Foods v Jones [1983] ICR 17).

Employees are not exempt from their employer’s code of conduct even when they leave the premises as their actions taken outside of work can still result in a dismissal.  This can be seen in McLean v McLane Ltd EAT 682/96 where an employee was drunk and disorderly outside working hours. He was also found to in possession of cannabis (a Class C drug in the UK).  This information was released to the media which reported the story and, as a result, the employee was dismissed. This action by the employer was deemed fair by the Employment Tribunal.

Not all employees are fairly dismissed and the actions of the employer might mean that have been unfairly dismissed. To qualify for employment rights regarding unfair dismissal, an employee must normally have a minimum of 2 years’ continuous service (as per the Employment Rights Act 1996), but there are numerous exceptions e.g. discrimination, health and safety and whistle-blowing dismissals.

Employers can, admittedly, find a way around the 2 year continuous service period by employing someone on short-term contracts, thus ensuring that the minimum qualifying period is never met and the employee has not acquired any rights in respect of dismissal.

In some employment roles it is not possible to be unfairly dismissed due to the nature of the role e.g. UK armed forces and/or police service staff. Employees have the right be accompanied to a dismissal meeting if they choose to do so, they can bring a fellow employee or trade union official. Further details on this can be found under S10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999. Employers should adhere to their company guidelines and follow procedural fairness when disciplining employees – especially if dismissal is an option they are considering (as demonstrated in British Homes Stores Ltd v Burchell [1978] IRLR 379).

Wrongful dismissal

Moving on to the issue of wrongful dismissal, where the contract is breached due to the dismissal procedure. The most common example is the employee does not receive the requisite notice period from the employer.  In this instance the employee would not require two year’s continuous service to raise a claim in this regard. The statutory minimum notice period, according to S86 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, is one week for each year of service up to a maximum of 12 weeks. 

Claims for wrongful dismissal must be made within three months’ minus one day of the effective date of the termination of the contract to the Office of Employment Tribunals (OET). The case of Morran v City Council of Tenants (1998) is highly instructive.

Morran claimed wrongful and unfair dismissal when his employer dismissed him without being given the compulsory notice period; he just missed out on accumulating enough continuous service. Held by the Scottish Court of Session, Morran was entitled to claim wrongful dismissal and receive compensation however he could not claim unfair dismissal as he had never acquired the actual right to bring such a claim. Employees who claim wrongful dismissal tend to be reimbursed by compensation. It would be very rare for an employee to go back to their job after claiming wrongful dismissal.

In fact, S236 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (Consolidation) 1992 states that no court or Tribunal can issue an order for specific implement or anything which will force the parties to work together under an employment contract.

Summary dismissal

Another type of dismissal is summary: “This is when you dismiss someone instantly without notice or pay in lieu of notice, usually because of gross misconduct (for example theft, fraud, violence).” (UK Government, 2020). Summary dismissal if not handled properly can be wrongful or unfair. An employer will need to prove the employee has committed violent or serious acts or health and safety breaches.

Even if an employer feels summary dismissal is the preferred option, it is worth stepping back and taking stock. It is often better and far safer to suspend an employee on full pay and then investigate the situation to head off a potential claim for unfair and/or wrongful dismissal.

Summary dismissal will be justified if the employer can prove the act committed by the employee amounts to gross misconduct in the workplace. However, if the employee can argue that their actions were not that of gross misconduct and no notice period was given employer will be liable for wrongful dismissal. The remedies available to the employee would be compensation.

Constructive dismissal

One last dismissal claim is that of constructive dismissal. This arises when an employer commits a serious breach of the employment contract and the employee has no alternative but to resign. In these types of claims, employees can treat themselves as dismissed as the employer’s behaviour has effectively destroyed the employment contract.

The individual claiming constructive dismissal is saying S/he has been unfairly dismissed and for this claim to be granted they must prove the employer’s conduct was so severe that it amounted to a fundamental or material breach. Constructive dismissal occurs in “situations where the employer made unauthorised deductions from wages; subjected to bullying and harassment; where the employer refused to follow the proper disciplinary or grievance procedures.” (Crossan, 2020)

In Sharp v Western Excavating Ltd [1978] ICR 221, Lord Denning explained the rules regarding constructive dismissal:

An employee is entitled to treat himself as constructively dismissed if the employer is guilty of conduct which is a significant breach going to the root of the contract of employment… then the employee is entitled to treat himself as discharged from any further performance.”

As a point of interest, Sharpe was not entitled to claim constructive dismissal: his employer was perfectly within its rights to refuse him time off from work to go and play cards. The employer’s behaviour was entirely reasonable and thus did not represent a material breach of the employment contract.

Procedural fairness

When contemplating dismissal as an option for disciplinary offences, it is often safer for employers to suspend the relevant employees on full pay and carry out a full investigation, rather than dismiss employee instantly. Employers should ensure that disciplinary procedures are clear and consistent and comply with current ACAS Codes on discipline at work (see link below).

https://www.acas.org.uk/acas-code-of-practice-on-disciplinary-and-grievance-procedures

Time limits for Employment Tribunal claims

Claims for both unfair and wrongful dismissal must be made within three months’ minus one day of the effective date of the termination of the contract to the Office of Employment Tribunals (OET). Failure by the claimant to submit an application within the time limit will mean that the claim is time barred i.e. it cannot normally be heard by the Tribunal – no matter its merits.

Remedies for dismissal

A claimant who brings a successful action for dismissal may be entitled to the following remedies issued by a court or a Tribunal:

  • Compensation
  • Reinstatement
  • Re-engagement

If the employee can claim dismissal, they could be entitled to compensation and/or reinstatement (failing that, re-engagement if reinstatement to their old position is no longer available). An employer does not have to reinstate or re-engage the employee and may find it more acceptable to pay a higher sum of compensation.

Sir Philip Rutnam

A current unfair dismissal case is that of Sir Philip Rutnam, former Permanent Secretary at the UK Home Office. Sir Philip is claiming unfair dismissal against his former boss, the current UK Home Secretary Priti Patel MP.

Sir Philip resigned because he is alleging that he was subjected to bullying by Mrs Patel (she denies these claims). At the time of his resignation, Sir Philip, was the Home Office’s most senior official, and he claimed that there had been a “vicious and orchestrated” operation against him. Sir Philip presented a claim to the Employment Tribunal for unfair (constructive) dismissal against the Home Secretary. A Cabinet Office investigation was initiated in March 2020 concerning the allegations against Mrs Patel in order to establish if she had breached the ministerial code. (Patel faces unfair dismissal claim from ex-adviser, 2020). The case is ongoing, but if Sir Philip is successful in his action, it will be hugely embarrassing to the UK Government.

Jo Millington

In another, recent case relating to constructive dismissal, a leading forensic scientist called Jo Millington was a victim of sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. The scientist was asked by her boss whether she disliked him because of her sexuality. Millington, who is gay, took her case to an Employment Tribunal. She launched claims for sexual orientation discrimination, breach of contract and constructive dismissal against her former employer, ArroGen Forensics after the company’s CEO Joe Arend speculated whether her sexuality was the reason behind her evident dislike of him.

Arend had inquired whether Millington had a problem with him “because of her sexuality”, pointing out he was “big” and “used to play rugby”. The Reading Employment Tribunal was told Millington that she had previously complained about Arend’s behaviour when he referred to the level of her expenses and salary as “crazy”. The Tribunal found the company liable for discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, constructive dismissal and breach of contract. It concluded that Jo Millington regarded her sexual orientation as a confidential matter; Millington was granted compensation. (Lowe, 2020).

No smoking!

In another unfair dismissal story, a long serving worker at a water bottling plant was sacked for smoking on the premises. The employee took a claim to Tribunal for wrongful and unfair dismissal, which resulted in a successful claim. The claimant, Mr Andrew was a team manager for production at Montgomery Waters Limited, where the no smoking rule was introduced in 2004. Employees were, however, permitted to smoke in a designated ‘smoking hut’.

Bosses were informed that Andrew was seen smoking outside the ‘smoking hut’. CCTV was viewed and appeared to show Andrew smoking, on four occasions, in prohibited areas. The footage showed a man wearing red overalls and Andrew was one of two people to wear these. Andrew, who had 15 years’ service with the company, was suspended during the disciplinary investigation. Andrew denied the allegations, but was still dismissed from his employment. During the Tribunal Hearing, the judge highlighted the vagueness in the firm’s handbook on whether smoking in prohibited areas would amount to misconduct. The judge also observed that it was the employer’s responsibility to enforce strict rules restricting smoking in particular areas. Although Andrew’s claims for both wrongful and unfair dismissal were upheld, the compensation awarded to him was reduced by 50% on the basis that he had contributed to his dismissal (Powys County Times, 2020).

New T&Cs

A controversial case regarding the potential threat of dismissal is Asda’s introduction of a new contractual agreement known as ‘Contract 6’, which will replace the existing agreement. It was introduced back in 2017 and, at this time, signing the new contract was voluntary.

‘Contract 6’ abolished paid breaks, introduced compulsory bank holiday working, staff could also be asked to work flexible hours and work in different departments within the store. In August 2019, Asda were accused of forcing employees to agree to accept ‘Contract 6’.

Asda stated that their employees are required to sign the new contract by November 2019 and, if they failed to do so, their contract of employment would be terminated. Employees would not be entitled to sick pay until the contract was signed. The GMB Trade Union attacked the new agreement and claimed that, under the new conditions, employees would be worse off. The main objection raised by the employees and their trade union was the inflexibility of the contract.

Under these new terms, day shift employees had to be more flexible with their working hours – they had to be available for work between 5am and midnight. It also meant employers could give less notice than before with regard to changing shifts. Employees took the view that Asda was disregarding employment law by unilaterally changing key terms and conditions.

In response to the claims being made, Asda may be able to justify their dismissals as fair in terms of Section 98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 on the grounds that the employer can show that some other substantial reason is the justification behind terminating contracts.

In Asda’s case, the company may be able to justify their actions on the grounds that the new contractual arrangements have been necessitated as a result of a company restructuring exercise. This could make the dismissals potentially fair (Crossan, 2017).

Currently, lawyers for Asda and the GMB Trade Union are at loggerheads. One claim for unfair dismissal has so far been submitted by a former Asda employee, Duncan Carson. He was dismissed due to not signing the new ‘Contract 6’. Carson had worked at Asda for 13 years in total, and a large part of his legal argument is that “a contract is an agreement between two parties”. Carson believes, if one person can change the contract unilaterally.

Furloughing employees

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), announced by HMRC on 20 March 2020, is a UK Government funded scheme to provide financial support for employers to allow them to continue to pay part of their employees’ wage costs rather than lay them off during this crisis.

Eligible workers are put into the scheme by employers when agreement is made between both, and these employees are now furloughed workers (Association of Taxation Technicians, 2020)

Nunn (2020) explains that the scheme allows companies to ‘furlough’ their employees, covering 80% of the wage cost, allowing the claim to include 80% of their employee’s gross salary with cap of £2,500 a month.

CIPD (2020) defines furlough as a ‘temporary leave of absence from work’ due to economic conditions of affecting the company or country.

Although this is a new concept for the UK labour-force, the scheme does nothing to change how the fundamentals of UK employment law e.g. it does not mean a break in continuity of employment. The employee must give written agreement to the employer before being enrolled in the scheme.

The CJRS ensures the job security of the British workforce due to employers being unable to provide pay.

The official government site (UK Government, 2020) announced that the scheme is only temporary; set to last a maximum of 4 months, with a 3 consecutive week minimum period for each employee to be furloughed.

The government site explains that employees on sick leave are not eligible for furlough whilst the business is reclaiming Statutory Sick Pay. HMRC allows employers with less that 250 employees to reclaim 2 weeks of Statutory Sick Pay for each employee off work for a coronavirus related cause, although the method to do so has still to be put in place by the HMRC. Employees with multiple jobs can also be furloughed from either or both jobs, as the £2,500 wages’ cap applies to each job.

In order to be eligible for the government scheme, the employer must have PAYE account, and each employee must have been included on RTI submission in the pay period on or before 19 March 2020 (CIPP, 2020).

The UK Government (2020) also announced that any employees made redundant before 28 February, due to the impact of Coronavirus, could be eligible for furlough status – as long as they were on the PAYE scheme before they were dismissed. Employers could claim for them also and this part of the furlough scheme has prevented those in industries, such as hospitality, from being almost certainly made redundant.

It is, of course, up to the employer if they choose to furlough any dismissed employees who are eligible to partake in the CJRS and there is no legal requirement for the employer to go down this path.

Therefore, utilising the CJRS gives employers the cash-flow for the wage costs to be able to keep employees on their payroll for when the business reopens, as an alternative to dismissing them during this global crisis. At this present time,it ensures job security for the employee but it may also mean living with a reduced wage.

Conclusion

To summarise, dismissal is a vast and complex area of employment law yet once broken down becomes that bit clearer to understand.  The area is ever changing with cases now coming against the Government itself and what pathway that may open if Rutnam is successful in his claim against Patel.  There are also the uncertainties in the world just now surrounding coronavirus and the impact it was have on employee’s not only with their wages but with their employment status when this all ends.

References:

Association of Taxation Technicians, 2020. COVID-19: Job Retention Scheme- details for employers [online]. Available at <https://www.att.org.uk/covid-19-job-retention-scheme-details-employers> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

BBC News. 2020. Patel Faces Unfair Dismissal Claim From Ex-Adviser. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52356574> [Accessed 23 April 2020].

CIPD, (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19): furlough guide [online]. Available at <https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/employees/furlough> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

CIPP,2020. Further updates to Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme guidance foe employers and employees [online]. Available at <https://www.cipp.org.uk/resources/news/further-updates-to-cjrs-employers-employees.html> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

Claire Knowels, 2017. What is the difference between unfair and wrongful dismissal [online] Available at https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/experts/legal/unfair-dismissal-wrongful-dismissal-differences (Accessed 26th of April 2020)

Crossan, S. J., 2017. Introductory Scots Law: Theory and Practice 3rd Edition. In: The Law of Employment. Glasgow: Hodder Gibson.

Crossan, S.J. (2020). Constructive dismissal. Scots Law [online] Available at https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/04/09/constructive-dismissal/ (Accessed 26th of April 2020)

Employment Rights Act 1996

Employment Relations Act 1999

Lowe, Y., 2020. Leading Forensic Scientist Wins Sex Discrimination Case. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/23/leading-forensic-scientist-wins-sex-discrimination-case/&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2020].

Nunn. D, 2020. HMRC reveals 20 April start date for Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme [online]. Available at <https://www.aatcomment.org.uk/trends/coronavirus/april-20-start-date-for-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme/> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

Powys County Times. 2020. Water Bottling Plant Worker Sacked For Smoking In The Wrong Place Wins Compensation. [online] Available at: <https://www.countytimes.co.uk/news/18339002.smoker-wrongfully-dismissed-hearing-rules/&gt; [Accessed 24 April 2020].

Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992

UK Government, 2020. Check if you can claim for your employee’ wages through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme [online]. Available at <https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wage-costs-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

UK Government, 2020. Fair dismissal [online] Available at https://www.gov.uk/dismiss-staff/fair-dismissals (Accessed 26th of April 2020)

Copyright Helan Ali, Rebecca Brodie, Cameron Crossan, Jack Holland and Eve Richmond, 28 April 2020

Challenging times …

The issue of employability and job security amidst these challenging times, with reference to specific organisations.

Alistair Lee, Niamh Mackenzie, Fraser Morrison and Abby Roberts (edited by SJ Crossan)

The Coronavirus does not pick and choose who to target – everyone is at risk. Therefore, on March 23rd, the UK went into full scale lockdown, three days after the Government put in place restrictions on select businesses. This lockdown has had a detrimental effect on almost every business, and thus has affected their employees in turn. A few months ago, before the COVID-19 outbreak and the World Health Organisation declaring a worldwide pandemic, most people would never have heard of the word ‘furlough’. Now, it is on everyone’s lips. It is critical for organisations to deal with their staff in the correct manner when it comes to their job. If not, their livelihood is at risk and their family’s livelihoods are at risk, particularly if they cannot take advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme.

Some companies have understood this and dealt with their employees correctly and efficiently, while some most certainly have not. People do not forget. If an organisation comes out of this pandemic looking worse for wear, due to their negative actions, it certainly will not recover quickly – if ever.

Virgin is one of many companies to handle this situation extremely poorly. Richard Branson has never been particularly liked by the people of the UK, plus he owns an airline – one of the most disliked types of organisations due to their price hiking. Therefore, this pandemic could have been used to gain some trust back – instead, it has done quite the opposite. On March 26th, Virgin Atlantic Airways said they would reduce their daily flights by 80% amid the drastic decline in travel owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Like many organisations, this steep decrease in business led Virgin to look at where they could cut costs to try and save the business. They decided to do this through their staff. Employees at the UK airline have been forced to take eight weeks of unpaid leave over the next three months. Amid backlash from this decision, Virgin released this statement:

“An increasing number of countries are now closing their borders – most significantly, the US, where a travel embargo from the UK comes into force on Tuesday (17th March). Though this was expected, it has accelerated the sharp and continual drop in demand for flights across Virgin Atlantic’s network, meaning immediate and decisive action is needed… Today, Virgin Atlantic will put drastic measures in place to ensure cash is preserved, costs are controlled, and the future of the airline is safeguarded.” (The Street, 2020)

While this seems a fair and logical response on the surface, if you delve a bit deeper, you begin to understand why it is so horrific that Virgin are not paying their staff while they’re on leave due to COVID-19.

Virgin Atlantic boasts revenues of £2.8 billion, with the Virgin Group as a whole commanding revenues of over £19 billion. (Virgin Annual Report, 2018). In addition to this, Richard Branson has a net worth of $4.4 billion (Forbes, 2020). In 1971, Branson was convicted and briefly jailed for tax evasion. This experience has not changed his attitude however, since in 2013, he described himself as a ‘tax exile’ having saved millions in tax by ending his mainland British residency and living in the British Virgin Islands. (The Daily Telegraph, 2013). And it is not just him personally that is doing this – his entire business empire is owned by a complicated series of offshore trusts and companies. If he were to liquidate all the company’s assets, he would pay extremely little in tax.

When you consider all the above, does Virgin’s statement seem fair and logical now? A multi-billion-pound organisation owned by a multi-billionaire who lives on his own private island that can fetch up to $87,500 per day, asking for a £500 million bailout from the Government (funded by taxpayer money) just so they can pay their staff doesn’t seem particularly fair and logical.

Denmark, Poland and France have all refused to bailout tax haven-controlled companies. The UK should do the same – refuse to pay the £500 million and tell Richard Branson to dig deep into his particularly selective pockets.

Virgin are not alone, however, when it comes to receiving criticism for their approach to dealing with staff during these strange times. British pub chain, JD Wetherspoon have recently received a lot of backlash from their questionable approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. The chain insisted that it could not afford to pay its staff during the crisis until the government had reimbursed the company for their wages (Davies, 2020). Tim Martin, founder of the company, sent a video out to his employees explaining the situation and the approach that the company had chosen to take after the government had called for all pubs to be shut to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (Ng, 2020). The employees were told that they would only be paid for the hours that they had worked up until 22nd March 2020 and that no further pay would be given until the furlough scheme had been put in place. The government had announced that they would pay 80% of staff wages up to £2,500 (Munbodh, 2020). However, this left many employees worried, due to the fact this could take until the end of April (Davies, 2020). Martin told his 40,000 employees that if they needed a wage, then they should consider taking on work with Tesco (Munbodh, 2020), causing considerable anger from employees who felt that they were unappreciated and being “abandoned” by their employer. Not only were Martin’s employees left questioning when they would next receive a wage, but many of the company’s workers were even stripped of bonuses that they had already managed to achieve (Ng, 2020).

The company received a lot of backlash online for this approach to the situation, with many members of the public vowing to “boycott” Wetherspoons pubs in the future once they have reopened for business (Brown, 2020). Piers Morgan, co-presenter of Good Morning Britain, posted on Twitter “Don’t go to Wetherspoons,” in response to Martin’s attitude towards the Covid-19 Crisis (Ingate, 2020). One member of the public even responded to the company by leaving a message for Tim Martin by graffitiing one of the Chain’s many pubs, The Postal Order. The words “pay your staff” and “pay up” were sprayed onto the windows of the pub in red and white paint (Ng, 2020). Photos of the vandalised pub, which were shared online, received a lot of support from individuals who condemned Tim Martin for suggesting to his employees that they should take on employment with Tesco following the closure of his pubs (Ng, 2020). A strike movement was also formed by a group of Wetherspoons employees called ‘Spoon Strike’ and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) and demanded that the company give them full pay. In a statement released by Spoon Strike, they wrote “Whilst other companies such as Costa have promised their staff eight weeks fully paid, Wetherspoons have left over 40,000 people without their next pay date. With no means of paying for rent, bills or food, and no warning” (Ng, 2020).

Following the large wave of backlash that Tim Martin and his company received, Mr Martin later announced that the first payment for his workers under the government job retention scheme would be made on 3rd April ‘subject to Government approval, and weekly thereafter’ (Brown, 2020). However, many members of the public are still shaming Martin, who is supposedly worth over £40million (Munbodh, 2020) for his initial response to the crisis and continue to vow to “boycott” Wetherspoons pubs once they have reopened for business.

The impact on the employment market in the UK is not all negative, however.

One example of initiatives that have been employed to help protect workers is a free online training scheme for furloughed individuals. The Department of Education run initiative offers online training courses for workers who are furloughed in order to “ improve their knowledge, build their confidence and support their mental health so they have skills they need to succeed after the coronavirus outbreak” (BBC News, 2020). The hope is that it helps to mitigate some of the impact the crisis will have on a post lockdown employment market, by facilitating the growth of workers during the pandemic.

Regarding individual firms that are looking after their staff during the crisis, the Co-operative Group are a fantastic example. To show their appreciation for their key workers keeping shops stocked and the nation fed, they have rewarded over 7,500 staff with an extra week worth of pay in addition to doubling their staff discount. The hope is to help to ease the financial burden they face during lockdown and to reward staff for going “above and beyond” during lockdown (Derby Telegraph, 2020). This shows that not all employers are looking to shirk away from the issues surrounding their workers’ rights – some are bolstering them and trying to offer a more supportive and robust working relationship during these trying times.

Ford’s UK division have also been taking steps to protect their workers by considering the duty of care that they have towards them. Despite March normally being one of the busiest months of the year for car sales, Ford’s UK boss Andy Barratt prevented any of his dealerships from ordering new cars. Barratt stated that cash liquidity was important in these financially pressing times and in order to prevent mass furlough he insisted that the cash reserves were better use keeping staff employed. The firm have opted to pay staff until at least June, where they will review the situation and take necessary steps from there. This will protect the rights of employees and their financial security, with Ford stating that; “All dealers need to focus on, is keeping their people safe, keeping their business viable and the revenue they need in return to keep those things going.” (Chaplin, 2020). They have not only done this for financial reasons – the company recognised that there is a great level of stress put on workers in the months of April and March to shift all of this new stock but they decided it was more important to protect the mental and physical health of employees and as a result, they have instructed that staff should work from home where possible. This shows a great awareness of the duty of care that Ford have for their staff, taking action to support their financial wellbeing, in addition to physical and mental health of their staff in these uncertain times.

After the initiative of companies such as The Co-op and Ford, the UK staple that is Boots have followed suit.

Boots is one of the largest retailers in the UK, both in terms of revenue and number of shops. Boots have around 2,500 shops and employ over 63,000 people across the United Kingdom – these range from local pharmacies to large health and beauty shops.

Due to the recent COVID-19 breakout, many shops and retailers have been forced to shut. Like other pharmacy chains, Boots have been designated as an essential retailer which is why they have remained open during this worldwide pandemic. However, staying open opens a whole new can of worms – particularly when it comes to keeping employees and customers as safe as possible, all the time.

To make sure that Boots employees are fully protected, they have put many factors in place to protect and support their staff, to take care of their customers by providing a consistently high service, and to also protect their business. By taking these measures, it ensures a safe, secure employment through difficult trading conditions. Some of the measures that have been taken by Boots to comply with their duty of care for their staff and customers include:

  • Flexible hours to cope with increased demand
  • Closing stores for one hour each day to clean and sanitise surfaces
  • Plastic visors provided for staff
  • Masks/aprons/gloves provided
  • Workers always asked to remain two metres apart throughout the day
  • Maximum of 3 customers allowed in the shop at the one time to maintain social distancing
  • Perspex screens put up at counters.

Boots are in some ways in a different trading position than many other companies across the globe. Their role is to provide healthcare to customers and to make sure patients receive vital medical products. Their employees benefit from this, but in turn they also have to now work in difficult and unsafe conditions with the COVID-19 situation, so Boots have to make sure they provide as much personal protection to safeguard their employees and customers, and to let them continue to trade effectively.

Boots employees do not have the risk of being put on furlough or being made redundant. They provide an important service and their employees are classed as Front-Line Workers, who have the permission under Government guidelines, to carry on working at their normal place of work. Because of these conditions, Boots employees feel that they continue to have job security, and do not have the worry of losing their income as many others do, through these difficult circumstances.

Instead of closing stores and pharmacies, and putting employees in insecure positions, they have created jobs out of this situation. Due to the high demand of prescriptions being delivered to patients aged 60 and above, they have had to recruit more than 400 new drivers for the pharmacy delivery and collection service, where prescriptions are collected from doctors’ surgeries. This has been done to cope with unprecedented demand but overall it is a major benefit as many people may have been made redundant and are grateful of having the opportunity to take on a different role, whilst also helping to provide support for people in need. They have also created jobs in their warehouses and distribution centres due to a significant increase in its online business.

Conclusion

In the coming weeks, the lockdown measures may or may not be lifted. However, even if they are, there will be several restrictive measures put in place and thousands of businesses will still not be allowed to open. This means that organisations will need to continue to support their staff as much as possible, and if they are not currently supporting staff to the best of their abilities, they will need to start doing so. It is as simple as that. For what is a relatively short period of time to take a financial hit by paying staff in full, while not bringing in any revenue, it is a drop in the ocean when you consider the potential long term impact of millions of customers boycotting the business because of the way they treated their staff during this pandemic.

Copyright Alistair Lee, Niamh Mackenzie, Fraser Morrison and Abby Roberts, 28 April 2020

California dreamin’?

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

I’m currently in the fourth week of Semester 2 and I’m teaching Employment Law to a group of second year students. I usually begin this course by discussing the importance of an individual’s employment status.

In today’s world of work, the great divide very much rests upon whether a person has a contract of service OR a contract for services.

An employee is said to have a contract of service as defined by Section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Having this status potentially allows someone to acquire employment protection such as the right not to be unfairly dismissed; the right to a redundancy payment; the right to be the beneficiary of family friendly and flexible working practices.

After the first few lectures have been completed on employment status, I usually ask the students if they think this is an important issue?

Hopefully, if I have been doing my job properly and they have been listening to me, the penny will have dropped: it is more often better to be an employee than someone who works under a contract for services (e.g. zero hours workers, casual and atypical workers, freelancers and the genuinely self-employed).

There are notable exceptions (aren’t there always?): high earning British television celebrities (e.g. Lorraine Kelly) or a number of BBC news journalists have preferred to be treated as freelancers or self-employed persons. Why? They can then minimise their exposure to income tax liability in a way (often via the medium of personal service companies) that would not be possible because if they were employees they would almost certainly be taxed at source on a PAYE (pay as you earn) basis.

We have seen an explosion in the type of work that is often characterised or labelled as the ‘gig economy’. This work is often characterised by a distinct lack of employment rights; irregular working patterns; chronic insecurity; lack of long term career progression; and low pay. It is often impossible for such individuals to complete the necessary periods continuous service to acquire employment rights.

Companies such as Deliveroo, Lyft and Uber have become synonymous with the ‘gig economy’, as have whole sectors of the employment market e.g. catering, cleaning and hospitality services.

Admittedly, the UK Government of Prime Minister Theresa May (2016-19) did commission Matthew Taylor to review employment status. The main conclusion reached by the Taylor Review was that a minimum level of employment protection should be extended to workers – after all these individuals pay their National Insurance contributions too.

Links to the Taylor Report and the UK Government’s response can be found below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627671/good-work-taylor-review-modern-working-practices-rg.pdf

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/679767/180206_BEIS_Good_Work_Report__Accessible_A4_.pdf

In Scotland, the devolved Government has also established a Fair Work Convention with the aim of promoting better and progressive employment practices by 2025 (see the link below):

https://www.fairworkconvention.scot

Admittedly, an employee does not gain these rights from day 1 of employment. They become entitled to claim certain rights as they build up their continuous service with the employer. So, for example, an employee (generally speaking) has the right not to be unfairly dismissed in terms of the Employment Rights Act 1996 if they have completed 2 years of continuous service with the employer.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world …

… or California dreamin’

It’s not just in the UK that debates about employment status are currently playing out. At the tail end of 2019, it was with particular interest that I read about a story from the United States which highlighted many of the issues which I have just been discussing in this Blog.

A study, carried out in 2015/16 by economists (Professors Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger at Harvard and Princeton Universities respectively) calculated that “12.5 million people were considered independent contractors, or 8.4% of the U.S. workforce.”

https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/lkatz/files/katz_krueger_cws_v3.pdf

Interestingly, in 2019, Professors Katz and Krueger appeared to disown or play down certain of their findings – especially in relation to the number of American gig economy jobs:

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/07/economy/gig-economy-katz-krueger/index.html

Assembly Bill 5

The US State of California has just enacted a law, Assembly Bill 5 2019 or AB5 (known more popularly as the gig economy law) giving those individuals working in the gig economy more employment rights. The law came into force on 1 January 2020.

A link to AB5 as enacted by the California State legislature can be found below:

https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201920200AB5

In theory, AB5 makes it much more difficult for employers to classify individuals as independent contractors for services meaning that many more people will be treated as employees with the right to claim the minimum wage and the right to receive sick pay.

The Supreme Court of California laid down very strict criteria for determining whether an individual was an employee or an independent contractor in what is being referred to as the ‘landmark’ decision of Dynamex Operations West, Inc v the Superior Court of Los Angeles County 30 April 2018 Opinion S222732.

The case establishes the ‘ABC Test’ which operates on the presumption that individuals hired by an organisation or business are employees unless the hirer can show otherwise. In this case, the Supreme Court moved away from the ‘seminal’ Borello Test which had been the standard way of determining a person’s employment status since the 1980s. Critically, AB5 reflects the Dynamex criteria.

Essentially, the hirer must satisfy all three parts of the ABC Test in order to prove that an individual is a genuine independent contractor.

The criteria in ABC Test (as contained in AB5) can be set out as follows:

(A) The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact.

(B) The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.

(C) The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

The Dynamex decision is regarded as a landmark judgement because it overturns the Borello Test which had been the leading precedent for determining employment status in California since the late 1980s (see S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v Department of Industrial Relations (1989) 48 Cal.3d 341).

In Dynamex, the Californian Supreme Court made the following statement:

Although in some circumstances classification as an independent contractor may be advantageous to workers as well as to businesses, the risk that workers who should be treated as employees may be improperly misclassified as independent contractors is significant in light of the potentially substantial economic incentives that a business may have in mischaracterizing some workers as independent contractors. Such incentives include the unfair competitive
advantage the business may obtain over competitors that properly classify similar workers as employees and that thereby assume the fiscal and other responsibilities and burdens that an employer owes to its employees.

The Court noted, moreover, that:

In recent years, the relevant regulatory agencies of both the federal and state governments have declared that the misclassification of workers as independent contractors rather than employees
is a very serious problem, depriving federal and state governments of billions of dollars in tax revenue and millions of workers of the labor law protections to which they are entitled
.”

A link to the Dynamex judgement can be found below:

https://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/dynamex-operations-west-inc-v-superior-court-34584

Legislators in other US States (New Jersey and New York particularly) have expressed a desire to follow the Californian example and Democratic US presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are strongly in favour of this type of law.

As you would expect in such a litigious society as the United States, AB5 has already been the subject of a legal challenge (which was unsuccessful). Predictably, Uber and another company, Postmates, were at the forefront of this action.

This legal challenge was hardly surprising, given that The Los Angeles Times reported in August 2019 that Uber and Lyft intended to establish a campaigning fund worth $60 million to fight AB5.

A link to the story can be found below:

https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2019-08-29/ab5-uber-lyft-newsom-lorena-gonzalez-ballot-tony-west

Conclusion

So, even in the land of free enterprise, it would seem that not everyone wants to be their own boss and many people would, in fact, be more than happy to welcome the recognition of their status as employees.

That said, AB5 has, surprisingly, not met with the approval of every worker or potential employee. The California performing arts community has experienced problems with the new law, mainly because of its use of the term ‘fine artist’ which was not defined. Fine artists are exempt from the provisions of AB5, but who exactly is a fine artist? No one seems to be sure and The Los Angeles Times reported that one opera company had cancelled performances because they were unsure whether performers were to be classified as employees (with the additional costs that this would entail) or whether they were genuinely independent contractors.

Lorena Gonzalez, the Californian Assemblywoman who drafted AB5 said that a definition of the term was deliberately omitted from the law and that it the responsibility of the State’s Employment Development Department to clarify this issue.

Readers will find links below to media articles about AB5:

https://apple.news/A_pjrttPvTDSMSpV-VMet8w

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49659775

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-01-29/ab5-independent-contractor-california-2020-arts

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/19/the-gig-economy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/07/22/good-work/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/22/hello-im-lorraine-and-im-definitely-self-employed/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/21/employee-or-not/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/01/17/employment-status/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/08/call-me-an-uber/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/strippers-are-workers-too-discuss/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/14/horses-for-courses-the-equine-flu-affair/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/30/paternity-leave/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/25/the-work-life-balance-or-utopia-reimagined/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 13 February 2020