The issue of working hours and other terms and conditions of employment for Special Needs Assistants ("SNAs") has caused difficulty for Boards of Management in recent years. We examine a recent related Workplace Relations Commission ("WRC") decision which should provide clarity on the appropriate handling of future similar cases.
This case was initiated by a group of SNAs represented by IMPACT against the Board of Management of a national school. IMPACT invoked the grievance procedures applicable to SNAs under Department of Education and Skills ("DES") Circular 0072/2011 on the basis that the Board of Management was basing its working week for SNAs on "incorrect information". Thereafter, IMPACT invoked Stage 3 of the grievance procedure and lodged a case under section 13 of the Industrial Relations Act, 1969 to the Workplace Relations Commission. IMPACT sought a recommendation from the Adjudication Officer of the WRC that the Board of Management be directed to "reflect the nationally agreed contract of employment" regarding working hours ie the DES Circular SNA 12/05 and 15/05.
We represented the Board of Management in the defence of this case. We strongly objected to the WRC's determination of this dispute, arguing that the jurisdiction to determine any issue regarding SNA hours was ultimately one for the Minister for Education & Skills.
The Adjudicator in the WRC agreed with the submission we presented on behalf of the Board of Management. The Adjudicator found that he did not have jurisdiction to make a specific recommendation on the claim. Significantly, the Adjudicator further stated his view that:
"the matters of this claim are national and collective in nature, rather than specific to an individual school. Therefore, I believe that the matter would be most appropriately dealt with at such a level. Therefore, I would respectfully suggest that the matter might be better referred to the appropriate IR (Industrial Relations) institution where all the relevant parties (i.e. the Trade Unions, the appropriate Managerial Authorities and the Department of Education and Skills) could engage in a conciliation process to address this issue".
This is a welcome decision for schools who have found themselves under siege by claims that either their existing terms and conditions of employment for SNAs or current work practices are in breach of agreed DES Circulars. Principals and Board of Management who find themselves challenged by IMPACT on the issue of SNA contracted working hours via the SNA grievance procedures should ascertain whether the grievance is "a matter of contractual agreement" or a "Circular" matter. If so, these matters are excluded from the grievance procedure. The message from the WRC is indisputably clear; the WRC may also refuse to determine the issue at Stage 3 of the grievance procedure.
The WRC has recommended that IMPACT engage with the management bodies and the DES on a national level. At this juncture, it would seem that there has been no further engagement and/or co-operation amongst the relevant stakeholders in resolving the matter of SNA working hours.
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