An office worker who lost her job after going on maternity leave for 28 months and refusing to return to work failed to sue her bosses for unfair dismissal and discrimination.
The tribunal case centred around Jowita Parsons, who had been absent from her job for an extended 28-month period due to maternity leave and other personal matters.
Parsons' lengthy hiatus from work was marked by two consecutive maternity leaves and additional time off for family-related issues.
The tribunal learned that, after more than two years of absence, her line manager asked her to provide a specific return-to-work date.
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However, Parsons declined, insisting that she would only return once her divorce proceedings and house sale had concluded.
The tribunal also discovered that her initial maternity leave had begun four weeks earlier than planned, shortly after she received a disciplinary warning for "aggressive and inappropriate behaviour."
This premature departure, coupled with her lack of clarity regarding her return date, resulted in disruption within the company, which employed just 21 staff members, and caused significant stress to her colleagues.
Parsons had joined International Forest Products Limited as an import coordinator in March 2019. Within five months, her line manager, Ben Wallace, expressed concerns about her punctuality and work quality.
Later that year, Wallace pointed out a mistake in her work via email, which led to a complaint from Parsons, who stated that their working relationship had "not got off to the best of starts." Subsequently, she received a disciplinary warning for her "aggressive and inappropriate behaviour" towards Wallace.
Following this disciplinary action, Parsons requested to commence her maternity leave four weeks ahead of schedule.
This sudden move left Wallace, who was abroad in the Philippines at the time, scrambling to find a temporary replacement for her role, which involved overseeing order fulfilment and delivery administration. The tribunal noted that this abrupt transition resulted in poor business performance and added stress for both Wallace and Parsons' colleagues.
In March 2020, just days after the UK entered lockdown, Parsons informed her boss of her desire to extend her first maternity leave to a total of 12 months.
She was initially slated to return to work in October of that year, but her plans changed when she became pregnant again. She requested an extension of her second maternity leave, which was originally set to conclude in November 2021.
Her request for additional time off was granted, postponing her office return until the following year.
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By that point, Parsons had spent six and a half months fulfilling her parental role, accumulating a total of two years, two months, and two weeks on maternity leave. Her return to work was further complicated when Wallace informed her that additional training would be necessary. He also requested a specific return date instead of leaving it open-ended.
A return date was provided to Parsons, but she rejected it and did not offer an alternative timeframe. When pressed about her anticipated return, she explicitly stated that she would only come back after her divorce proceedings were finalised and her house sale was completed.
The tipping point occurred in February 2022 when Parsons failed to return to work as previously agreed.
Consequently, her employment was terminated. She subsequently attempted to sue her former employer on grounds of unfair dismissal, pregnancy discrimination, and sex discrimination. However, her claims were all dismissed by the tribunal.
Judge Shields stated: “[Parsons] was asked about her return to work and on eight separate occasions she categorically stated that she was not able to return at all.
“She was further asked to put her alternative suggestions to return to work, in writing. She did not do so at any time.
“[Parsons] was repeatedly asked to provide a reasonable time frame in which she would be able to return to work. She was not able to provide a reasonable time frame.
“Furthermore, she stated on multiple occasions that she would not be able to return to work.
“The reason that the claimant was dismissed was because she refused to return to work and [the company] could no longer keep her role open indefinitely.
“The tribunal was also satisfied that there were real pressures on [the firm] to fulfil the role of import coordinator and to have [Parsons] in her position and completing the work... there was a genuine disruption and overburdening of a small company whilst [she] was not in her role.”
Consequently, the legal battle between Parsons and International Forest Products Limited ended in favour of the company.