Astrophysicist in contract row with employer secures permanency in WRC claim
Posted on 14th September 2022 at 15:09
Statutory complaint under Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Act 2003 was upheld against Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies
Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS) has been ordered to recognise a leading astrophysics researcher as a permanent employee after the Workplace Relations Commission rejected its claims that there had been a break in his service.
The WRC heard the researcher had attended conferences on behalf of the institute and continued his project work at a time when it denied he had received assurances he would be re-employed.
Alessio Caratti O Garatti’s statutory complaint under the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Act 2003 against DIAS was upheld by the WRC in a decision made public on Tuesday morning.
The tribunal heard that Dr Caratti O Garatti is the author or co-author of some 130 publications in the field of star formations in the leading scientific journals, and now works at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome as a permanent staff researcher.
He worked for DIAS as a postdoctoral researcher from November 2014 to October 2021 on a series of three fixed-term contracts ranging in duration from six months to four years.
This included a role on the team which developed a key component of the James Webb space telescope which was launched into orbit last Christmas called the Mid Infra-Red Instrument, or MIRI.
In July this year, the institute announced that it was releasing the first colour photography taken by the space telescope using the MIRI device – with a spokesperson calling it “the forefront of ground-breaking research in space”.
Dr Caratti O Garatti’s representative, Frank Jones of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, argued that because his client had built up more than four years’ continuous service that his employment had been “transmuted into a contract of indefinite duration by operation of the law”.
A key dispute in the case was a period from 30th April, 2017, to 2nd October, 2017, which DIAS argued was a break in service which undermined the academic’s entitlement to the permanent contract.
It was the complainant’s case that he was “informally made aware by [DIAS] that he would be employed on a new contract” and that he had been “led to believe in conversations with senior management that he would be taken back on”.
Mr Jones said his client had kept his desk at the Institution, continued to use his staff email and a laptop it had issued to him.
Dr Caratti O Garatti had also continued work on two projects at DIAS and had been “explicitly asked” to do so as one of them had an approaching deadline, he said.
Mr Jones added that his client had gone to conferences as a member of DIAS in May, June and September 2017 and turned down a job offer with another institution in July 2017 “as he knew he would be re-employed by the respondent”.
The institute agreed with the chronology set out by the complainant but denied he was “ever given assurances that he would be re-employed” after April 2017.
It said its “core” staff were funded directly by the exchequer while project staff were externally funded on “short fixed-term projects” funded via research grants.
“Members of the team may be employed for varying durations but their employment cannot extend beyond the date of the project,” it submitted.
It said Dr Caratti O Garatti had not been supervising PhD students but accepted that he attended conferences on behalf of DIAS during this time, receiving only expenses and that he had the use of a desk, IT facilities and his DIAS email address.
“Such arrangements are not unusual in this sphere,” the institute submitted, adding: “The complainant is similar to the majority of fixed-term-contract post-doctoral researchers working throughout the third-level and academic sector in Ireland. [He] was encouraged to make funding applications in his own name to seek to secure funds towards future research and employment for himself.”
The institute’s position was that Dr Caratti O Garatti’s position that he was “certain he was continuing his employment” with the institute was contradicted by his having made a number of such grant applications.
In his decision, adjudicating officer Roger McGrath wrote that the relationship between the parties in the disputed period in 2017 was “extremely close, closer than would be expected of a relationship which was completely ended”.
“The question arises, why pay the expenses of the complainant for three conferences, one abroad, if it was not expected that DIAS would reap some reward at a future date?” he wrote.
He noted that Dr Caratti O Garatti had to look for his P45 in June that year and found that this undermined DIAS’s position that he was “finished with little probability of coming back”.
Mr McGrath also noted a contemporaneous email submitted in evidence which said Dr Caratti O Garatti’s contract “technically ends this week but the intention is to give him approximately three more months’ additional time working on MIRI” – the space telescope project.
“From my reading of this email, it would seem to me that there was no intention of absolutely ending the relationship; that the break was a technicality; that once funding was available, he would be coming back,” Mr McGrath wrote.
He found that DIAS “did believe… as a matter of probability that the complainant’s employment would be resumed within a reasonable period” and that Dr Caratti O Garatti was entitled to a contract of indefinite duration with the institute.
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