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Workplace Relations Commission finds complainant, who worked as higher executive officer at Cork Prison, was discriminated against 
A woman with a heart condition who complained of discrimination against the Irish Prison Service (IPS) over not being allowed to work from home during the pandemic has been awarded €55,000 by the Workplace Relations Commission. 
Caroline O’Connor worked as a higher executive officer in the IPS in Cork from May 2013, on a full-time basis, during which time she had a three-week, illness-related absence from work in 2019. Ms O’Connor is on sick leave from the service since February 2020. 
Her pay was reduced by half from July 2020 but income continuance programmes raised her earnings to 75 per cent of normal pay. 
Ms O’Connor claimed discrimination in conditions of employment on grounds of disability and that the IPS failed to reasonably accommodate her request to work from home. 
In February 2020, she had an acute cardiac event at work and requested permission to work from home and was refused three times in March and April 2020. 
In April 2020, she submitted a “fit to return to work from home” certificate deemed unacceptable by the prison. Her GP had written that Ms O’Connor “is fit to work but not on site at Cork Prison”. 
The prison mandated her to return to work when medically fit because she was deemed an essential worker, based on site. The complainant’s paid sick leave was placed at risk as a result. 
Dan Walshe, for Ms O’Connor, said it was clear to the respondent before this date that Ms O’Connor was seeking “reasonable accommodation”. 
Mr Walshe submitted that the complainant had not been met with a risk assessment of her condition by the respondent, who adopted a “one-size-fits-all” approach to prison-based staff. He added that the complainant’s circumstances were clearly distinguishable from those of her colleagues who did not have underlying conditions. 
Counsel for the Prison Service, Peter Leonard, outlined that due to the nature of the duties of the job, presence on site was mandatory and that remote access working applied only to staff at headquarters in Longford and prison management. He said measures were put in place to ensure the safety of the remaining staff mandated to work on site through a series of staggered arrival times, break times, social distancing, PPE and streamlining of staff interactions on duty. 
Mr Leonard said each Government department was required to determine what constituted essential work in accordance with their leadership teams. The prison’s governor had said to Ms O’Connor: “There is no agreement on prison-based staff working from home. Unfortunately, it can’t be accommodated.” 
In her decision, adjudication officer Patsy Doyle said: “I can safely conclude that the respondent was obliged to try, at the very least, to explore the circumstances and conclude if ‘on reasonable accommodation’ and through ‘appropriate measures’ the complainant could undertake her duties.” 
“Nobody undertook a risk assessment of this, or evaluated any of the duties or tasks suggested by the complainant. Nobody measured the fear that intensified for her on the evolution of Covid. It may well have transpired that working from home was not the panacea first thought by the complainant, or perhaps that a compromise on hours or duties could have been struck up but this proposal deserved consideration. 
“I find that the respondent did discriminate against the complainant in the provision of reasonable accommodation,” she said, adding that the respondent discriminated against Ms O’Connor in relation to conditions of employment. 
Ms Doyle ordered the Prison Service to pay Ms O’Connor €55,000 “as compensation for the effects of this discrimination”. 
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