Paralegal awarded €500 compensation after employer clawed back education aid

A paralegal who received ‘commendable’ support from his employer in his ambition to become a solicitor has been awarded €500 by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) after the company illegally recovered the costs of studies on his last salary.

Although he found his claim to be well-founded, the adjudication officer also blamed the man for not activating the company’s grievance procedure sooner and for making ‘veiled threats’ against his employer, a global leasing and financing company.

While working for the company on a second consecutive fixed-term contract, the man, who is now a trainee lawyer at a law firm, was granted access to its education assistance program – generally only available to permanent employees – on an exceptional basis.

The man received €775 to cover the cost of Law Society exams and preparatory courses, which the company sought to recoup when he left less than a year later at the end of his contract. He was not informed of the deduction until his last day.

The company’s education policy stated that employees would be “obligated to return all financial assistance to the company” upon resignation, as well as in other circumstances such as course failure, failing exams or termination of employment.

The paralegal argued to the WRC that he had been granted access to the education program solely on the basis of his “loyal commitment to the company during the Covid-19 pandemic” and that the expiration of his contract at term did not constitute a resignation.

In a recently published article determination which was handed down last month, the WRC agreed that the paralegal’s access to the scheme appeared to be “based on goodwill and was essentially an anomaly”. The company seemed “eager to accompany the complainant in his progression to become a notary, which was commendable”.

The adjudication officer noted that the grievor “was not eligible for this program and that his application was processed outside of the official deadline without the visible presence of the CEO’s endorsement.” No record of the endorsement or reasoning has been submitted to the WRC by either party.

There was a “lack of a transparent basis for the entire application and approval process for the educational assistance provided to the grievor”, the adjudication officer said.

The fact that the authorization to release school assistance to the complainant was “incomplete and not covered by a good faith agreement” placed the payment in “the realm of a gray area for the complainant as a fixed-term worker in the business,” noted the successful bidder.

However, the payment of €775 was still subject to the Payment of Wages Act 1991, which “prohibits payroll deductions except in very specific circumstances”. The adjudication officer said the deduction was “a unilateral action and as such amounts to a flagrant breach of section 5(2) of the Act”.

The respondent was ordered to pay €500 as reasonable compensation for breach of section 5 of the 1991 Act.

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