The Swissport crew's Covid dismissal complaint was rejected by the WRC

The Swissport crew’s Covid dismissal complaint was rejected by the WRC

Six Swissport ground crew members who had worked at Dublin Airport have lost their claim to have been laid off when the aviation industry fell into a slump at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alan English, Shay O’Hare, Tony O’Neill, Stephen Kavanagh, Phillip Kelly and Robert Keogh all lodged complaints under the Payment of Wages Act against Swissport Ireland Ltd.

They claimed that the company unfairly selected them for unpaid layoffs when the pandemic struck – while other workers left less service at work.

The workers – who are mostly in the senior ramp operational class, but include airline coordinators, a baggage hall supervisor and a tanker – have long service at the company, more than two decades in most cases.

They were among 546 of Swissport’s 650 employees who were laid off in March 2020, the WRC was told.

Terry Gill, a business executive, told the tribunal that its activities “were suddenly and severely affected by severe uncertainty as a result of the decline in flight patterns and numbers”.

“The company had to act,” he said.

“Our priority was to retain team managements for large contracts as well as a competency matrix,” he said.

He also said that workers who could provide some flexibility in their hours were also prioritized.

The competency matrix document prepared by HR officials in the company was questioned at the hearing of the employee representative, employment consultant Dermot O’Loughlin.

Mr O’Loughlin argued that workers’ service had been a factor in the selection of redundancies at other Irish airports where Swissport operated, but that they had not been taken into account during the redundancies at Dublin Airport.

“There was no consultation on the criteria to be applied to laid off staff and to decide who would stay,” he said.

He said that the union Siptu, which was not involved in the claims, had believed locally that the dismissals would only last for a short time.

“The matrix that the company applied was deficient and contained a large number of errors that obviously led to prejudices about the selection,” he said.

Mr Gill said that the competence matrix “was not the decisive factor” in the redundancies and that the knowledge of individual managers was also a factor in the selection process.

He said the company had acted “fairly and reasonably” under the circumstances.

Gill said the allegations before the WRC were not representative of the views of most of the rest of the company’s staff, adding that the company’s main union, Siptu, was not involved in producing them.

Only 67 workers were kept on reduced hours of 28 hours a week, he said.

Ciaran Loughran, head of Ibec’s employer relations, said each of the complainants had been asked to return to work in November 2021, but “declined continuously”.

In six parallel decisions published by the WRC this morning, Judge Brian Dalton wrote that the complainants’ refusal to return to work “was based on a premise that until the company could fully respect [their] Contract terms [they were] not obliged to return to work “.

“It is an argument with little merit and it also does not reflect what is contractually the case,” he wrote.

Mr O’Hare, Mr Kelly and Mr Keogh had also claimed under the Conditions of Employment (Information) Act, raising the question of whether Swissport was entitled to lay them off.

He wrote that the HR manager responsible for the redundancies had the right to impose them and acted reasonably in each of the cases and found the employees’ positions “not credible”.

There was no money to be paid to any of the six workers who had been illegally deducted, Mr Dalton added.

Kelly, Mr English and Mr O’Hare also made other claims under the Conditions of Employment (Information) Act on the grounds that when each sought a copy of his contract, which the company said contained such a clause, the company had failed to provide one.

Mr Dalton found these allegations “opportunistic rather than merit-based” as the complaints from Kelly and Mr English relied on Swissport’s “inability” to find its individual contracts with that clause.

Although the company had not been able to find O’Hare’s 1998 employment contract, it later appeared and was left to the complainant, Mr. Dalton.

It included a clause covering layoffs and short-term work, the WRC was told.

Mr Dalton found that this confirmed Swissport’s position “that the redundancy period was a standard clause in employment contracts”.

He also dismissed complaints about the terms of employment.

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