The new Covid-19 legal case that South African workers should know about

South Africa’s courts recently dealt with the case of an employee who did not follow Covid-19 regulations at work and was subsequently dismissed.

In this case, the employee was an assistant butchery manager employed at the applicant, noted Werksmans Attorneys.

He was also a member of the applicant’s in-house ‘Coronavirus Site Committee’ and was responsible for, among others, informing other employees of the procedure to be followed if they were exposed to Covid-19 as well as symptoms they should be aware of.

The employee used to travel to and from work with a colleague who had exhibited Covid-19 symptoms and was booked off from work for four days. His colleague was admitted to a hospital a few days later and was told that he had tested positive for the virus.

At the time that his colleague initially fell ill, the employee began experiencing chest pains, headaches and coughs. He was booked off work between 6 – 10 July 2020. He returned to work despite his symptoms, and even after he became aware that his travelling partner and colleague tested positive for Covid-19.

The employee underwent a Covid-19 test on 5 August 2020 and was informed on 9 August 2020 that he had tested positive. However, the employee had still reported for work on 7, 9 and 10 August 2020. In fact, he personally came to the employer’s premises to hand in his positive results.

The employee was observed on video footage at the workplace hugging a colleague a day after he had tested positive. The colleague he was hugging had recently experienced post-surgery complications. The video footage also showed the employee walking around the workplace without a mask.


Dismissed

Werksmans noted that the employee was charged with:

  • Gross misconduct relating to his alleged failure to disclose to his employer that he went for a Covid-19 test and was awaiting his results;
  • Gross negligence in that after his Covid-19 test result came back positive, he continued working and had therefore put the lives of his colleagues at risk;
  • Furthermore, during this period it was alleged that he had failed to abide by the health and safety protocols in the workplace.

The employee was subsequently dismissed for his actions. Following his dismissal, the employee referred an unfair dismissal dispute to the CCMA on the grounds, among others, that he had not been provided with any clear direction or instruction from the employer and that he was ‘subjected to victimisation’.

The CCMA held that the employee was required to inform the employer that he underwent a Covid-19 test and was guilty of failing to report his test.

The employee was also found to be grossly negligent and ‘extremely irresponsible’ as he had reported for duty after he received a positive Covid-19 test result, failed to inform the employer of the same, hugged fellow employees and walked around the workplace without a mask on.

However, the CCMA held that in the circumstances, the sanction of dismissal was not appropriate considering the employer’s disciplinary code, Werksmans said.

“The conduct, as exhibited by the employee called for the sanction of a final written warning in terms of the disciplinary code.

“As the employer could not justify the sanction of dismissal, the CCMA held that it was substantively unfair and ordered that the employee be reinstated without back-pay and a final written warning be placed on his record.”


Labour Court’s ruling

On review, the Labour Court held that the findings made by the CCMA commissioner were entirely disconnected from the evidence that was placed before him.

“The Commissioner had concluded that the employee’s actions were ‘extremely irresponsible’ in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and this, the court stated, should have confirmed the sanction of dismissal and that the employer’s disciplinary code was merely a guideline insofar as issued of sanctions were concerned,” Werksmans said.

Ultimately, the court held that the dismissal of the employee was appropriate given the fact that:

  • He was aware that he was in contact with a person who had tested positive for Covid‑19 and had himself experienced symptoms;
  • He had endangered the lives of everyone at the workplace including his colleagues, their families and communities;
  • He was a member of the ‘Coronavirus Site Committee’, he should have easily recognised his Covid-19 symptoms, and should have known what to do when in contact with exposed to someone who had tested positive for Covid-19;
  • His conduct was inconsiderate and nonchalant in that he ignored all health and safety protocols in the workplace;
  • He walked around the workplace without a mask and hugging colleagues, thereby placing everyone he had been in contact with at great risk;
  • He did not show any form of contrition on his part. He was also dishonest in that he sought to conceal the date upon which he received his Covid-19 test results.

The court concluded that at no point was the employee victimised. In fact, all the evidence put forward by the employer pointed to the employee being grossly negligent, reckless and dishonest. Therefore, the trust and working relationship between the employer and employer could no longer be sustainable.

The court set aside the commissioner’s award and held that the employee’s dismissal was substantively fair.

“This case emphasises the obligation placed on employees to always abide by Covid-19 health and safety protocols in the workplace, as the failure to do so may result in termination of their employment,” Werksmans said.

  • Commentary by Jacques van Wyk (director) and Andre van Heerden (senior associate) at Werksmans Attorneys.

Read: Health minister on vaccine targets and a fourth Covid-19 wave in South Africa

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The new Covid-19 legal case that South African workers should know about