A supermarket has been ordered to pay almost €40,000 for sacking an alcoholic manager who drank ‘in a coma’ with vodka on the premises when his employers left for a wedding.

Supermarket owners called it an “incalculable” breach of trust, meaning the manager had broken promises made after similar behavior the year before.

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) concluded that the manager had been dismissed in a discriminatory manner because he was an alcoholic and that, in the absence of precedent in the field, it could not accept the abuse of trust as a defense to discrimination.

The court upheld Eamon Murphy’s claim against Michael Connolly & Sons Ltd, which trades as Connolly’s Supervalu in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow.

The court was told there had been a series of ‘alcohol-related issues’ with Mr Murphy in 2019 leading to a ‘serious incident at work’ four days before Christmas 2019.

He was declared fit to work in January 2020 after seeing the company doctor, where he agreed to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and that there would be ‘no repeat alcoholic incidents’, the WRC has heard .

In October the same year, the Connolly family left for the weekend to attend their daughter’s wedding, leaving Mr Murphy solely in charge of the supermarket, said Helen Barry of Simplify HR, who appeared for the employer.

On Saturday, October 24, Ms Barry said, the complainant brought a “considerable volume of alcohol” to work.

He drank vodka on the spot “to such an extent that he had become completely unconscious and seriously alarmed his immediate colleagues about his well-being”.

Mr Murphy had to be driven home by his colleagues, she said.

The court was told that Mr. Murphy had informed his employer that he would go directly to a residential substance abuse course three days after the incident.

In his testimony, Mr Murphy expressed remorse for what happened and said he believed the previous year he could ‘solve his drinking problems largely on his own’.

Mr Murphy said the company doctor had been ‘helpful but was not an expert in addiction and realistically of little value’.

He said his alcoholism had been progressive at the time and the October 2020 incident was when he ‘hit the wall’ with drink – realizing it had ‘completely taken over his life “.

It was only then that he recognized the extent of his problem, he said, and “immediately” enrolled in a residential treatment program.

He said he left the treatment course a “changed man” and was asking the company for “another chance in any capacity”, when he appealed his dismissal.

Ms Barry said the supermarket continued to pay his wages while he took the course and when he was certified fit to return to work in December 2020 he was suspended with full pay for an investigation.

The end result of the disciplinary proceedings that followed was a finding of serious misconduct and a sanction of dismissal.

Tom Connolly, the company’s chief executive and decision maker in the disciplinary case, said: “On every level, both professional and especially personal… the breach of trust was simply incalculable.

“The relationship could not continue. In the absence of trust, the risk that [Mr Murphy] was posing for the company was too big. The dismissal was a very difficult decision to make, but there was no alternative,” he told the court.

He said alternatives, such as a ‘reduced’ job at the store, ‘would never have been possible’ as the loss of confidence of other staff in supermarket management would have been ‘tremendous’.

“Dismissal was the only and most regrettable option. All other employers would have done the same,” Ms Barry said.

Mr Murphy’s dismissal was later upheld on appeal – a proceeding which his solicitor, Rosemary Mallon BL said, ‘did not give due consideration to his alcoholism’ and failed to consider the complainant’s suggestions in matters of reasonable accommodation.

“Clearly, the plaintiff was fired simply because he was an alcoholic – that was grossly discriminatory,” Ms Mallon said.

Arbitrator Michael McEntee found that Mr Murphy had a “well-recognized disability” in the form of alcoholism and noted that there were “numerous” alcohol-related incidents involving the plaintiff in 2019.

“However, it was on the weekend that the Complainant, by his own admission, chose to bring a considerable amount of alcohol into the store and continued to consume it on the spot until he fell into the coma.

“As a store manager, with all the responsibilities that go with it, this, to any reasonable observer, was a catastrophic breach of trust that would make any future working relationship very difficult, if not impossible,” McEntee wrote.

Supermarket lawyer Ms Barry had argued that the 2017 Employment Tribunal ruling in the Irish Aviation Authority v Reddin case, which upheld the sacking of an air traffic controller who said he worked with alcohol in his blood, had to be convincing.

Mr McEntee noted Ms Mallon’s argument, for the complainant, that her client’s case had been taken under the Equal Employment Act.

“Any reliance on the case law/precedent of complaints under the Unfair Dismissal Act 1977 should be treated with caution,” he wrote.

He added that the risk factor in the Reddin case was “much higher than in a retail environment”.

He noted that the Labor Court had ruled that employers should give workers with alcohol dependence “the opportunity to seek professional treatment” before considering dismissal and that other factors, including the risk to safety, liability and contact with the public, were also to be taken into account in the assessment of the “reasonable range of responses”.

However, Mr McEntee said the requirements of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act were “paramount”, even in the circumstances of a breach of trust.

He wrote that supermarket owners had felt that supermarket managers ‘are not returning to work with greatly reduced or restricted capacities as a result of an addiction problem’ and made no effort to seek advice. of an addiction counseling service.

The case was at the intersection of common law and equality law, Mr McEntee wrote – an area “largely uncharted” by the courts.

“Unless and until tested by a higher court, breach of contract or breach of trust, as argued in this case, cannot constitute an effective defense for the employer in a dismissal case for discrimination on the basis of equality,” he concluded.

He found the discrimination on the basis of disability and the failure to provide reasonable accommodation to be “proven”.

Having been out of work for 18 weeks before taking up a new job on a ‘drastically reduced’ salary of €28,000 and suffering continuous losses up to a maximum of 104 weeks, Mr Murphy had lost earnings of around €103,000 €, noted the referee.

Mr McEntee ordered the payment of €39,750 in compensation to Mr Murphy – a sum of €250 less than the maximum awarded by law.