A case involving an employee who refused to attend work due to COVID-19 – Rodgers v Leeds Laser Cutting Ltd caught my eye because it is one of the first decisions that I have heard about dealing with an automatically unfair dismissal claim under Section 100 of the Employment Rights Act. Section 100 (d) permits an employee who is dismissed, in circumstances of danger, which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work, to claim automatically unfair dismissal.

In this particular case, the employee had a child with sickle cell anaemia and a 7 month old baby and was concerned that attending work would put his family at risk. The Employment Tribunal found that the employer had generally complied with all guidance as regards creating a COVID safe workplace: it was a large warehouse space, where it was possible to socially distance, face masks had been provided, guidance had been issued around hand washing and sanitiser had been provided and there were no criticisms made of the employers risk assessments or other measures put in place for COVID safety. In summary, the employee was more concerned about COVID-19 generally in the world at large as opposed to having any specific complaint about his actual workplace and how his employer had addressed those risks. In particular, the Tribunal noted that he had not made any complaint.

In those circumstances, whilst the wording used in the general Coronavirus Regulations (Public Health legislation) does use the same language and establishes that COVID-19 is a serious and imminent danger in general, the Tribunal felt that that could not be applied to this particular workplace because if you applied the logic that because COVID-19 is a general risk in the world, making every workplace dangerous, then every single employee across the country would be able to refuse to attend their workplace. For that reason and the fact that the employee had not made any specific complaints about his workplace, he failed in his complaint.

Of course, that does not mean that every employee will fail in such a claim: the TUC has reported in the week commencing Easter Monday, that their data shows that a third of all workplaces are not complying with the government guidance on COVID safe working. Clearly employees who work in those sorts of workplaces may have been successful in a similar argument.

This particular employee did not have 2 years’ service, so he was purely bringing his automatically unfair dismissal claim. However, if he had had 2 years’ service, he may well have brought an ordinary unfair dismissal claim – the Tribunal commented in this case that they would have had procedural concerns about the way in which the employer had handled the dismissal. As well as the procedural hurdle in an ordinary unfair dismissal claim, a Tribunal is also going to think about whether it would fall within the range of reasonable responses test to dismiss an employee who was worried about his family. I would suggest that the rush to dismissal in this case would probably make it unfair. An employer who issued the employee with warnings and had taken every step to work with the employee to allay his concerns, meet with him and get him back to work would be in a stronger position.

You could also see how in some cases an employee with their own disability could also have Equality Act claims if their own health was at the bottom of their refusal.

In any event, this is only a first instance decision and at some point the Employment Appeal Tribunal will have to rule on these sorts of issues and give guidance for employers but it is heartening essentially that the employee was not seen as being reasonable in this case and hopeful that the EAT will agree with the logic that general COVID risks in the world at large does not qualify as serious and imminent danger in the workplace, as every employee would be able to refuse to work.

Refreshing Law Ltd
9 April 2021