The recently published decision of the Workplace Relations Commission in the case of A Teacher v A Board of Management, ADJ-00026152, hinged on the duty owed by employers to afford 'reasonable accommodation' to employees who have disabilities. Here our Adrian Twomey looks at the key elements in the Adjudication Officer's decision.
The Complainant was a special education teacher who worked in two different schools. She worked three days per week for the school that she sued. She worked two days per week in the other school.
The teacher was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in December 2013. She was absent from work due to her medical condition from December 2013 to June 2015 and from October 2016 to September 2018. Soon after her return to work in 2018 she was again certified as being unfit to work. On this occasion the apparent cause was 'stress'. She returned to work on a two-day per week basis in January 2019 and a three-day per week basis after Easter that year.
When asked her class preferences for the academic year 2019/2020, the teacher informed the school that she wanted to work there five days per week. She wrote to the Board of Management of the school arguing that her medical circumstances dictated that she be permitted to work exclusively in that school as working in two schools exposed her to a greater risk of infection. This was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Her request was declined but she was offered a shared three and two day split between two schools. She later claimed that she should have been accommodated in the manner she requested because of her medical condition. She argued that the school's failure to so accommodate her constituted discrimination under the Employment Equality Acts based on her medical and legal disability. She further claimed that her wishes, supported by her consultant, could have been accommodated if the school principal had been moved to a mainstream classroom and the teacher from that room was moved to the split role between two schools.
The school sought expert medical advice before making a decision. Four medical report were obtained but they differed as to what they recommended. A final report stated that the teacher should be accommodated "if possible" by working five days per week in the one school. The Board of Management wrote to the Department of Education about the matter but apparently received no response.
From September 2019 the teacher was absent on two days per week (those to be worked in the other school) due to sick leave. Eventually, her paid sick leave entitlement of 1,095 days was exhausted and she was informed in February 2020 that further sick leave would be unpaid.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of schools from March 2020. The following month, the teacher indicated that she could now work remotely for the two days per week in the other school. Once the schools reopened in August 2020, however, she advised that her high-risk condition meant that she could not attend school at all. A substitute teacher was appointed.
Having considered the scenario described above, the Adjudication Officer concluded that the school was not legally required to reasonably accommodate the teacher by permitting her to work five days per week in the one location. The Adjudication Officer went on to observe that:
"Given the small size of the school, with only four teachers for the mainstream classes, I believe that it would have represented a disproportionate burden on the Respondent to have given the Complainant the full-time Special Education Teacher position in the school."
On that basis, the teacher's complaint was dismissed.
It is hard to imagine that any Adjudication Officer would not have sympathy for a Complainant with such a serious medical condition. However, it is also worth remembering that she had already been accommodated with extensive paid sick leave and was now seeking further accommodation that could have resulted in serious disruption at the school.
For employees who are suffering from medical conditions, it is worth remembering that employers are obliged to afford them "reasonable" accommodation. That does not, however, mean that they are entitled to have their every wish granted. Employers, on the other hand, should note that where employees have disabilities, expert medical and legal advice should be sought before refusing any requests for such accommodation.