Irish Daily Mail

‘Tsunami’ of legal issues

As staff are asked to go back to work, companies face GDPR and bias cases

- By Helen Bruce

A ‘TSUNAMI of litigation’ is afoot as firms prepare to reopen their offices to staff, solicitors have claimed.

With workers across the country expected to return to most offices in September, now that millions have been vaccinated, issues surroundin­g vaccinatio­n are the number one source of contention, say law firms.

But revelation­s that Google and other multi-nationals are considerin­g reducing wages for remote workers have sparked concern. It is yet to be clarified if this is to become practice for Irish staff.

Employment law experts also point to a risk of ‘proximity bias’, in which those who do return to the office and sit next to the boss get preferenti­al treatment.

They have also cited cases such as a possible rise in redundanci­es for those who refuse to return, or where businesses cannot fully recover from the shutdown.

And a further spectre of employees threatenin­g legal action if they catch Covid in the workplace has been raised.

Dublin solicitor Richard Grogan said: ‘There is a tsunami of litigation going to come.’

He said firms such as Google, other multi-nationals and Irish companies ‘across the board’ were already considerin­g a reduction in wages for those who did not want to return to the office when the Government gives the green light. ‘Most people’s contract of employment states that their place of work is in a certain location, so someone who says, “I don’t really want to come back to the office” could be deemed to have unilateral­ly terminated their contract of employment,’ he explained.

‘The company can then offer new terms, with a lower rate of pay for those who do not return to the office.’

However, Mr Grogan said it was issues around vaccinatio­n that were, legally, ‘a complete mess’.

He explained that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment had said in its ‘Work Safely Protocol’ that if employees are not vaccinated, the employer must redeploy them to another task if a task was unsafe. However, he said the Irish Data Protection Commission

had then said there was no legal basis for collecting and processing employee vaccine data, except in exceptiona­l sector-specific circumstan­ces.

Business group ISME yesterday said employers should be allowed to ask if employees are vaccinated before deciding if they can return.

Linda Hynes, of Lewis Silken law firm in Dublin, said: ‘One of the risks is proximity discrimina­tion, when people who come in and sit beside the boss and spend more time with them than those at home, receive more preferenti­al treatment... That’s more likely to happen to women, because traditiona­lly they look for more flexible working hours because they still carry the burden of childcare, so it could ultimately widen the gender pay gap.’

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