A disabled Angus woman forced to lie on the floor at work to alleviate pain has won a £13,000 settlement from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Ann Marie Caldwell, of Slade Gardens, Kirriemuir, felt so pressured to return to work at the DWP in Dundee she was prepared to kneel at her desk.
The UK Government agency has been criticised by a Dundee employment tribunal judge over its handling of the case, after the panel ruled they had sacked her unfairly.
Tribunal chairman Ian McFatridge said he found it “a quite extraordinary state of affairs” that the DWP failed to timeously process an application for injury benefit leave, deciding instead to sack the 51-year-old.
A £12,971.04 payout has now been ordered, with a further hearing to be held to ascertain compensation for pension loss.
The tribunal heard the agency had not followed its own policies in respect of injury benefit leave which, if granted, means the employee is no longer dealt with under its sickness absence policy.
Ms Caldwell was eventually granted injury benefit leave but the decision to sack her was taken before her application was approved, due to delays by the DWP in processing her case. As a result she never received that benefit.
Mr McFatridge said: “It appeared to the tribunal to be a quite extraordinary state of affairs if an employer was able to withhold this benefit from their employee simply by failing to process the application for injury benefit leave in time.”
He added: “It was absolutely incumbent upon them to wait until this was determined one way or the other.”
Ms Caldwell had also claimed she was unfairly dismissed on the grounds of disability — but that was rejected by the panel.
She had suffered from clinical depression for several years and began to suffer severe back pain during her employment, the tribunal heard.
The DWP had initially denied she was disabled but by the time of the tribunal hearing the agency conceded she was.
While working in the Dundee office, Ms Caldwell was in such pain after sitting at her desk that she was forced to lie on the floor for spells to relieve the discomfort and also kneeled down at her computer to continue working.
She felt pressured into returning to work too early despite the fact she had still been signed off by her GP, the tribunal heard, and felt threatened by her line manager and other management after her case was deferred to a decision maker, which meant her job was at risk.
The tribunal found while the DWP instructed eight occupational health reports on her condition, none of the assessments was done face-to-face with her, nor did the adviser seek a report from her GP or seek access to her medical records.
The DWP thought only 11 people out of the 400 employed at the pension centre could do her job and her absence would affect the service to vulnerable pensioners.
The tribunal said: “Unfortunately for the respondents, this statement was rather blown out of the water by the evidence of Ms Fenwick (line manager) to the effect that because of the Government’s austerity measures there was absolutely no possibility of Ms Caldwell being replaced.”
The tribunal also noted Ms Caldwell was “desperate to get back to work and was highly motivated to do so”.
It said the agency has made substantial adjustments to enable her to return to work in a standing-up job, for three hours a day.
The agency paid for a taxi to get her to and from work and allowed breaks and time to lie down in the first aid room as required.
Ms Caldwell said she was delighted with the tribunal’s findings and criticised DWP management for their “very clinical” handling of her case.
She said: “It was never about the money for me, it’s the moral thing. I was a very motivated, loyal employee in my duty and to be thrown out with the rubbish was awful.
“It was done very clinically, I couldn’t believe the way they treated me. I do miss the work but I don’t miss the environment I was working under.
“I was in so much pain but there’s no leeway.”
Ms Caldwell’s solicitor Ryan Russell, of Muir, Myles Laverty, said: “First and foremost I am absolutely delighted for my client.
“However, this is yet another case against a government department that I have been instructed in where a disabled employee has been unfairly dismissed.
“The DWP are one of, if not the largest employer in the UK with the full resources of the state behind them, accordingly they are held to highest standard in these types of cases.
“Sadly, I can say that this is not the last case of this kind as I have others in the pipeline.
“The volume of employment tribunal cases against government departments such as DWP in recent times is extremely alarming. This is not a problem confined to Dundee I am afraid to say.”
A spokesperson for the DWP said: “We’re currently considering the judgment in this case.”