A Cork golf course has been ordered to pay a greenkeeper €4,000 in compensation for unfairly dismissing him following a heated argument with one of its owners over Covid-19 safety.
The owners had insisted the greenkeeper had to be made redundant when they shrunk their driving range because "young bulls of golfers" were sending balls wildly off course – smashing windows and injuring one victim such that he needed dental surgery.
Gary O'Sullivan had complained under the Unfair Dismissals Act against brothers Colman and Michael Ryan, along with their mother Margaret Ryan, trading in partnership as Frankfield House in Douglas, Co Cork.
Michael Ryan, a golf coach and co-owner of the property, said the family had struggled for some time to keep balls from escaping the property and had installed nets and fences on the boundaries.
He said golf clubs had become more technologically advanced since he started coaching – and the players physically stronger.
"I call them young bulls," he said.
But even though players had the power to drive a ball 350 yards – rather than the 260 to 270 yards once typical for a "gentleman golfer" – their aim had not improved down the years, and the issue of stray balls was worse.
Balls from the driving range had landed in the neighbouring housing estate so often the family had been forced to replace "at least one window in every house" in the nearest row to the course.
However, Mr O’Sullivan told the Workplace Relations Commission in his evidence that he believed the motivation for ending his employment was a row he had with one of the owners on 29 July 2020.
Hot weather had caused the golf ball dispensers to malfunction and Mr O’Sullivan was working with Colman Ryan to repair them, the WRC was told.
"There was a thunderstorm all of a sudden that afternoon and there was a big stampede of golfers wanting to go from the outdoor range to the indoor range," Mr Ryan said.
"I needed Mr O’Sullivan to literally just hold his finger against [a] bolt on the outside while I went around the other side of the wall to put on the nut," he said, but Mr O’Sullivan got "very irate" about "the number of people coming in on top of him".
"People were coming in and out the door, coming up to me, asking questions. I’d turn to them and say 'we’re trying to fix the machines’ and when I would do that my grasp off the nut would slip," he said.
He said Colman Ryan came out to him "absolutely seething" to tell him: "Would you ever hold the nut" to which he replied that he was doing the best he could.
He said he was "in fear" of catching the Covid-19 virus and passing it on to a vulnerable relative and that he told Colman Ryan that the barman who was supposed to be enforcing social distancing was "useless".
Mr Ryan’s reply to him was: "No, you’re useless," he said.
"He told me ‘I’m the boss’ and he could speak to me whichever way he wants," Mr O’Sullivan added.
Mr O'Sullivan said he continued to report to work for the next two days until Michael Ryan asked him to take two weeks’ holidays to let things calm down, and he accepted holiday pay from him.
He said he heard nothing from his employers until the middle of August when Michael Ryan texted to say he was coming up to Whitegate to meet him.
"I was actually given this [letter] on the side of the road," he told the hearing.
"I was up there in the snow and the rain and to finish up like this was a little bit poor," he added.
"This wasn't a genuine redundancy. There was an incident on 29 July 2020 which left tension in the centre and it was due to this that Mr O’Sullivan was made redundant without any consultation," said Mr O’Sullivan’s solicitor Robert O’Keeffe in closing.
Ruarí Ó Cathain of Conway solicitors, who appeared for the Ryan family, submitted that it was a "business survival issue" for his clients.
The driving range had been reduced to a third of its usual capacity, and the income had fallen by a similar amount, it was submitted.
"The income wasn’t sufficient to support the role," he said, and as the only solely outdoor employee, Mr O’Sullivan was the only choice for redundancy, he argued.
In his decision, adjudicating officer Michael McEntee found that there appeared to be a "genuine business case for a redundancy" in the circumstances but that the way it had been handled by the employer was "open to question".
He said the usual redundancy process would include a warning to the employee that his position was at risk, prior consultation, consideration of alternative roles, formal meetings with representation, or an opportunity to appeal.
"Regrettably, none of these procedural steps took place here. The letter of 15 August to the complainant was effectively a 'fait accompli’," Mr McEntee wrote.
He ruled the dismissal was unfair and ordered the Ryans to pay Mr O’Sullivan compensation equivalent to about eight weeks’ pay, some €4,000, in addition to the €16,000 redundancy payment the family had already made.