A bookkeeper has brought a challenge against her sacking by an optician in Cavan Town after being accused of “low-level fraud” extending over years by giving herself an unauthorised €1.55-an-hour pay rise.
Bridget Clarke however, has submitted before the Workplace Relations Commission that she made a mistake in calculating her hours and insists she never gave herself more per hour than her employer authorised.
Ms Clarke has brought a complaint under the Unfair Dismissals Act over her sacking on a charge of gross misconduct by Paul Connolly, who trades as an optician from Main Street, Cavan Town.
Her representative has argued that she was denied a fair and impartial investigation and proper disciplinary procedures after the problem with pay was uncovered.
The optician, Mr Connolly, told a Workplace Relations Commission hearing this morning that he called Ms Clarke to a meeting on 14 January 2021 to ask her to explain why, in the company’s records, her hourly rate of pay of €15.50 had been crossed out and replaced with €17.05.
“I wanted to find out why this had been changed without my authorisation,” he said. Mr Connolly said that when he looked back over years of records, the total overpayments to Ms Clarke were of the order of €10,000, having gone on for up to seven years.
“I think it was done as a low-level fraud that wouldn’t show up because of the bill for overtime,” he said.
“When there was no explanation I asked her to give me something in writing – when it came it just didn’t make any sense,” he added under cross-examination from the complainant’s representative, Anne-Marie Donoghue of the Cavan Citizens’ Information Service.
“With three contradictory reasons given for this I decided it was fraud and I dismissed her,” he added.
“I burst into tears because I couldn’t believe what he was saying to me. I got really upset and went to the bathroom and the meeting ended,” Ms Clarke said of the meeting when Mr Connolly confronted her.
She said her boss gave her a letter on 19 January 2020 and told her he “wanted a written response within a week”.
“I was shocked. I sat down and read it. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I was basically accusing me of paying myself too much of a rate,” she said.
“I went by his figures. I was willing to take out a loan to repay him,” she said.
Under questioning from solicitor Shane Kelly, for the respondent, she said it was an “honest mistake” but accepted no other employee had been overpaid.
“So it’s a coincidence you were overpaid and not the others?” Mr Kelly asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Ms Donoghue submitted that Mr Connolly had found that her client was working an extra half hour a day between 9am and 9.30am after dropping her children to school, and that her boss had told her to pay herself time and a half for this half-hour – adding two hours to her basic 35-hour week.
However, when Mr Connolly produced written contracts for his staff in 2016, the practice of allowing Ms Clarke to take lunch at on the premises and be paid for it ended, which meant four hours had to be deducted from the working week, she said.
Ms Donoghue said that Ms Clarke had deducted the four hours from 37 hours rather than 35 hours, bringing to her calculate her weekly pay before overtime on the basis of 33 hours’ work instead of 31 hours.
Ms Clarke’s basic pay of €511.39 was therefore based the original rate of €15.50 over the miscalculated 33 hours, Ms Donoghue said.
“At no stage was she paid €17.05 per hour,” she said.
Mr Connolly said he believed Ms Clarke had paid herself €17.05 for 30 hours’ work in her basic week.
Ms Donoghue argued that the employer had failed to use fair procedures in the investigation and sanctioning of her client.
The decision to dismiss had failed to take into account Ms Clarke’s long service and dedication to the business, she added.
Adjudicating officer Breiffni O’Neill closed the hearing to consider his decision, which is expected to be issued to the parties and published in due course.