Pregnant cleaner called ‘pathetic’ for taking rest break was discriminated against, tribunal finds

Care home worker was told pregnancy was ‘not an illness’ after several periods of absence because of side effects

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A cleaner has won claims of pregnancy discrimination and victimisation after her manager called her “pathetic” for needing a five-minute rest break.

The South London Employment Tribunal heard that the claimant, Ms Anna Burns, had been placed on a ‘development programme’ to improve her performance, and her manager had threatened to end her employment if this did not improve.

Burns had been employed as a cleaner at Whitstable-based Tralee Rest Home from 7 March 2019 until her resignation on 8 December 2020.

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Before her pregnancy, which she announced on 8 October 2019, Burns had only taken two days of absence from work, and had a positive relationship with her manager. Absences were recorded on a self-certification form, which was in practice filled in by the care home’s manager, Karina Vernau-Pope.

Following her pregnancy announcement, she had four absences, on 22 to 23 October, and 2 to 3 November, for morning sickness and a migraine. Her manager recorded this on a form but did not note that this was down to pregnancy.

On an unspecified day in November, Burns was invited to a ‘development meeting’ with Vernau-Pope, and another colleague, only referred to as Debbie. During the meeting, Vernau-Pope told Burns: “You have two weeks to improve or that’s it,” which Burns took to mean that she would be dismissed if she did not improve.

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According to Burns, she was shouted at by Vernau-Pope, who denied this, but accepted that she had given her a warning. She cited that staff and visitors had commented on the “poor cleanliness”.

On 26 November, 10 minutes before Burns’ shift was due to end, she was approached by head of care Lorraine Standen and senior carer Victoria Styles. They accused her of not vacuuming a room she had been assigned to, in a “confrontational” manner. 

They asked her to redo the room, which involved carrying the vacuum cleaner up some stairs, a task that Burns said was “unreasonably physically demanding”. After this, Burns raised a grievance. 

In late November or early December, Vernau-Pope had a meeting with Burns regarding this incident. The tribunal found that, during this meeting, Burns was “unable to put forward her side of the story”.

On 28 November, Burns was off sick with morning sickness. On the same day, Vernau-Pope completed a risk assessment regarding Burns’ pregnancy, without her input.

In early December, Burns had a light-hearted conversation with staff about her “growing bump”. The tribunal was told that, during this conversation, Vernau-Pope told Burns that if she saw her “slowing down”, she “had the power to force [her] to start maternity leave”.

On 4 December, the two had a meeting about Burns’ risk assessment, which was amended to allow for short regular breaks.

On 31 December, Burns had another meeting with Vernau-Pope, during which she was handed a letter with a list of the 10 days she had been off sick during that year. It also read: “I hope to see an improvement in your sickness. If not, this may result in disciplinary action.” 

When Burns explained that the absences had been a result of pregnancy, Vernau-Pope told her that “pregnancy in itself is not an illness”, and that it would not stop her “getting rid” of her. Vernau-Pope denied the comments.

On 1 January 2020, Standen was in charge of the care home. At 10.30am, Burns took a tea break as she was feeling light-headed. She said this lasted five minutes but, according to Standen and Styles, it lasted between 20 and 25 minutes, and she did not ask permission. The tribunal accepted Burns’s account.

Burns took another break at 1pm, at which point Standen and Styles told her not to take a break. Burns became upset and left the care home. She was called back, and Vernau-Pope later arrived, and Burns was told to go home so that the issue could be resolved another time. However, Burns said that Vernau-Pope called her “pathetic”.

The next day, Burns was off sick with stress. She submitted a grievance, alleging pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and said there was a culture of bullying at the care home, citing 11 separate incidents. 

On 30 January, a meeting was held between Burns and Mr Sohal, the director of the care home. He said that the risk assessments had been completed in the correct way, and had been signed by Burns herself. He also said that Vernau-Pope had acted correctly in relation to absence management. 

Burns asked if she could move to another care home. In a letter on 4 February, Sohal said there were no other vacancies, but said there would be a “break allocation” going forward.

Burns asked if she could take annual leave from 22 February to 10 March, when her maternity leave was due to start. She took sick leave from 7 February until 21 February; on 7 February, she was removed from the staff WhatsApp group, which was used to communicate essential information to staff.

On 8 November, Burns resigned from the care home, stating she decided not to return after maternity leave because of the “circumstances surrounding the pending tribunal”. Her employment ended a month later.

The tribunal upheld two complaints against Standen and Styles, finding that they had likely “formed the view that [Burns] was treating her pregnancy as an excuse not to pull her weight”.

It also upheld complaints of unfavourable treatment against Vernau-Pope, finding that Burns’s pregnancy was “a significant reason for the treatment”. However, a complaint of victimisation did not succeed.

Three complaints against Sohal, of pregnancy discrimination and victimisation, were upheld. The tribunal found that he had a “completely closed mind to the issue of [Burns’s] absences being related to her pregnancy”.

Burns was awarded £24,460.52 for loss of earnings and injury to feelings.

Paul Seath, employment partner at Bates Wells, said the case highlighted the importance of having more “empathetic” line managers, who understand employees' issues better, including pregnancy. “Organisations are vulnerable if they have bad line managers; a vulnerability that could prove expensive in terms of time, money and reputation,” he said.

Martin Williams, partner and head of employment at Mayo Wynne Baxter, said it was “incredible in this day and age” that someone could be discriminated against at work for being pregnant.  “Bullying and discriminatory behaviour of the sort suffered by the claimant should never be tolerated,” he said.