My Job, or My Life?

Our member, Adam Ridley’s, employer was trying to force him back to work during the pandemic despite his severe lung conditions. But then we got involved. Adam won his claim against his employer for disability discrimination, and was awarded £22,000.

The article below, by Christine Buckley, first appeared in the winter edition of ‘Active’ – the UNISON Yorkshire and Humberside magazine for members.

Panic gripped many people at the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year both because of the illness itself and also its impact on the economy and jobs. But for Adam Ridley fears about both health and work were inextricably linked because of his serious health conditions.

Adam, a former music teacher who lives in Northallerton, was a team leader in an autism residential home run by Cambian Autism Services. He worked with children who can’t control their emotions and who certainly can’t keep a physical distance.

He has pulmonary sarcoidosis, a condition that can trigger shortness of breath and a persistent cough. He also has asthma and at the start of the pandemic he was warned by the NHS that he was at risk of severe illness if he contracted coronavirus. He’d seen his consultant just before the first lockdown and in a letter passed to his employer, the consultant stressed the general guidance to clinically vulnerable people that they should shield and avoid all social contact.

Initially, this was accepted by Cambian Autism Services and Adam, 34, remained at home on full pay. He tried to do some work online. But after the 14-week shielding period passed his pay was reduced and then as the first general return to work began last autumn Adam’s pay was stopped because he didn’t return to work. For him, the health threats were still too high.

Despite detailed discussions with his immediate boss, Adam learned about his pay in a blanket email from the home’s parent company – CareTech, one of the UK’s largest private social care providers. The insensitivity of the general email to an employee with a chronic medical condition ironically came as the founder of CareTech – Farouq Sheikh – received an OBE for services to specialist social care.

He said: “At that point I just freaked out. Luckily I had UNISON to turn to because I’d joined at the start of the pandemic because of the uncertainty about jobs.”

Adam hadn’t been offered any redeployment into a non-hands-on role despite requesting it. Adam was frightened about losing his ability to provide for his children – Robin, his daughter, was then four and his son Rufus was two – and he was scared by the disease itself. He was worried that perhaps he could be forced back to work or that his job would be taken away.

It was Helen Gray, one of our branch Service Conditions Officer, who really helped him see sense in the dark times. “She was empathetic and understanding and importantly made me realise that I wasn’t losing my mind and that employers just couldn’t behave that way.”

They tried to sort out the situation informally with the employer and then through a grievance procedure, but their efforts were to no avail. The impasse remained. Cambian Autism Services viewed Adam as refusing to go back to work, although he was “ready and willing to work”. Adam and Helen logged everything that had happened, sought legal advice through the union’s solicitors Thompsons and then decided that the only way to get justice would be an employment tribunal.

When Adam had no income and the salary of his wife Caroline wasn’t enough to keep the family going, he had to take out a loan to cover the household bills. He also started looking for another job.

It was at that time that his academic background and his love of music helped him to survive what was an extremely stressful period. A pianist, guitarist and vocalist, Adam says: “Music gave me solace. It kept me as sane as possible.”

Adam had very much enjoyed his previous job. He’d got into the work because while teaching he found the most rewarding part was working with autistic children. He’d not been in the role very long before he was promoted, and he had hoped that his career would develop further there.

The tribunal case was unusual in that employment contracts don’t specify what action should be taken in the event of a pandemic. But Thompsons think that many more similar cases will be finding their way through tribunals.

Thankfully after all the stress he’d been through, Adam had a resounding victory. He won a claim for disability discrimination and was awarded all the pay he lost, with the total topping £22,000. And he found a new job. He is now working for the probation service enjoying better hours and he is beginning the career climb afresh in a new line of work. His finances are back to what they were before his pay was reduced and then stopped.

He now hopes that others will be encouraged to fight against unfair treatment following his success.

Adam says he felt incredibly empowered after the decision of the tribunal and now he encourages everyone to join a union. “If you’re not in a union and this happens to you, where do you go? You must feel isolated and that you can’t do anything. I pay about £15 a month to UNISON which is a drop in the ocean for all the legal and professional support you get.”

He adds: “After all with the pandemic and the trouble with my employer, you ask yourself, would I rather lose my job or my life? And obviously there is no choice.”