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Firefighters win “landmark” COVID-19 discrimination case

23 September 2021

FIREFIGHTERS HAVE won a discrimination case against a Fire and Rescue Service having successfully argued that forcing firefighters with disabilities to use annual leave or TOIL when shielding amounted to discrimination. The case is thought to be the first wherein an employer has discriminated as a result of employees following Government mandated health guidance related to COVID.

Importantly, the decision could have implications for employers and employees in similar situations across the UK.

Firefighters additionally argued that some female firefighters were being discriminated against in a similar way, having been forced to use annual leave and TOIL for additional caring responsibilities during the pandemic. While they were successful in their theoretical argument, the Fire Brigades Union (which brought the case) was unable to prove their case in the context of these specific facts. It’s thought that they could appeal against this part of the judgement.

The case was brought by the Fire Brigades Union on behalf of some of its members against the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Despite the successful ruling from the Employment Tribunal, there has been no sanction on the employer and no instruction that they should reinstate the annual leave that was wrongly removed.

Denise Christie, the Fire Brigades Union’s regional secretary in Scotland, said: “In principle, we’re delighted with this result. It’s another example of a Trade Union fighting and winning a battle for its members. COVID-19 is like any other major burden that falls on society: a disproportionate amount of its impact often ends up being felt by those people who are already discriminated against, like women or the disabled community.”

Christie continued: “We cannot ignore the fact that, despite this judgement, the Employment Tribunal has seen fit to impose no sanction at all on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Nor has the Employment Tribunal seen fit to order the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to reinstate the annual leave wrongly removed from our members. That’s is clearly unjust and we will challenge this with every legal means at our disposal.”

The case had initially been brought under a collective grievance procedure, whereupon it was not upheld, and nor was an appeal relating to that procedure. The case was then heard by an Employment Tribunal where the judgement outlined was handed down.

*Read the case judgement in full: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/6141bfb2d3bf7f05b694d6aa/Mr_M_Cowie___others_v_Scottish_Fire_and_Rescue_-_4105098.2020___Others_-_Final.pdf