By Gordon Deegan
A Co Mayo-based chicken-processing firm has been ordered to pay €17,000 to a woman it unfairly dismissed while off sick days after suffering a miscarriage.
In the case, it is alleged that a female payroll employee at Western Brand Group Ltd told 37-year-old Bulgarian Aneta Petrova that she was "sick for too long" when dismissing her on December 29, 2015.
This was 12 days after Ms Petrova was diagnosed with having an ectopic pregnancy on December 17, 2015.
The night before, she was brought by ambulance to the emergency department at Mayo University Hospital after fainting at her home.
On December 21, a medical certificate was delivered to Ms Petrova's employer, the Western Brand Group Ltd’s offices in Ballyhaunis, confirming that Ms Petrova had suffered a miscarriage.
Eight days later on December 29, Ms Petrova said that she was sacked summarily over the phone after an employee at the firm’s payroll office told her that she was “sick for too long”, that she was suspended and that her P45 would be sent out to her.
Ms Petrova - who has a masters degree in European Law - worked on the firm's chicken fillet line at its Ballyhaunis plant.
Before the Labour Court, the Group pleaded that it didn’t realise that Ms Petrova was pregnant or had suffered a miscarriage at the time of dismissal and that her medical certs confirming the miscarriage were not seen by payroll before the call was made to dismiss her on December 29.
The company stated that after finding that Ms Petrova suffered a miscarriage, it subsequently apologised to Ms Petrova and said that she could re-apply for her job when she returned to full health.
Ms Petrova - who has since had a baby boy - was suing for unfair dismissal and in its ruling the Labour Court found that the Western Brand Group Ltd was aware that Ms Petrova’s illness related to her pregnancy and miscarriage at the time of dismissal.
The Labour Court stated that this finding is based upon evidence from the female Western Brand Group employee who sacked Ms Petrova on instruction from a superior.
The court found that the person stated in evidence that the Western Brand Group was at the point of Ms Petrova’s dismissal aware of the reasons for her unavailability for work and this was connected to her pregnancy and miscarriage.
The Western Brand Group was appealing an earlier Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Adjudication Officer ruling which found that Ms Petrova was unfairly dismissed and awarded her €12,000.
The Labour Court ruling has now upheld the unfair dismissal ruling and increased the level of compensation to €17,000.
Conor O’Dwyer of O’Dwyer Solicitors, Ballyhaunsis who represented Ms Petrova said today that Ms Petrova was treated "appallingly" by her former employer.
Mr O’Dwyer said that the facts around Ms Petrova being summarily dismissed days after suffering the miscarriage “are quite stark”.
He said: “The facts speak for themselves in this case.”
Mr O’Dwyer said that Ms Petrova is "quite pleased" with the Labour Court ruling but feels aggrieved in the way she was treated by her former employer.
He said the entire process of securing compensation for her unfair dismissal "has been very stressful for Ms Petrova where she and her partner have twice had to give evidence".
Mr O’Dwyer said that happily, Ms Petrova had her first baby, a baby boy last year. He added that he hoped the award would act as a deterrent against other employers who would treat pregnant women in such a manner.
He added Ms Petrova is highly educated having a Masters in European Law and a degree in economics while she has worked as a tax official and a manager of a trade department.
In her evidence, Ms Petrova stated that she was diagnosed with the ectopic pregnancy on December 17 and obtained a 10-day medical certificate.
A further medical certificate was provided to the firm on December 21 confirming that Ms Petrova suffered a miscarriage.
In its argument before the Labour Court, the Western Brand Group stated that it had not breached any legislation as it was unaware, at the time of dismissal, of Ms Petrova’s pregnancy.
The company stated that Mr Petrova had been fairly dismissed by reason of her unavailability for work.
The firm told the Labour Court hearing that it was its intention to declare the employee who informed Ms Petrova of her sacking and confirmed that the company was aware of Ms Petrova's miscarriage at the time of dismissal, as a hostile witness at the hearing, but didn't proceed with the application.