Anna C Young, a wheelchair user and disability activist, was friends with her personal assistant until she started demanding higher pay. The case ended up at an employment tribunal. Here, Anna explains what went wrong
Who bought your frying pans?” I didn’t have an answer to this question. I never like to be without a response, but this was a particularly bad time to be speechless. I was defending myself in an employment tribunal. It was an iconic moment in a bewildering journey.
“I don’t know.”
I could barely understand how I got here. As a recipient of direct payments for social care hours, I had employed personal assistants for years. How was it that my longest serving PA was sitting across a table, questioning me before three judges?
It began well. Working on my third university degree, I found I needed help, not only with my household, but with my scheduling and correspondence as well. She was reliable and talented. We worked together for five years, forging a close and personal bond.
Help with bookkeeping
The culprit for our parting was the most obvious one: money. As she helped me with my bookkeeping, she was aware that I had begun to receive Independent Living Fund payments. It was her belief that as my financial situation improved a bit so should hers. As her friend, I wished the best for her but, as her boss, I could not comply. Her work was funded by direct payments from DISC (Disabled in Camden) and had nothing to do with my personal accounts. I was required to maintain a separation between the two. Hence I refused her request.
Our working relationship was never the same. She became unreliable, frequently not turning up for work and ignoring my attempts at communication. I should have stepped up to my responsibilities as a boss and given her a warning about her behaviour. However, because of our friendship, I did not.
She continued her professional slide and the quality of my life suffered the consequences. She then quit without warning or explanation. I put my personal feelings aside and got on with life, determined to apply the lessons I had learned.
Claimed unfair dismissal
Several months later, I was surprised to receive an e-mail informing me of her intention to take me to an employment tribunal. She claimed not only that I owed her funds, but recompense from lost earnings as well. She further claimed that I had unfairly dismissed her. This was shocking and, frankly, rather hurtful.
I was not, however, worried. Possessing a law degree, I understand legal proceedings, although I had never imagined I would be on this side.
I secured an excellent solicitor and treated it as an educational experience. To my dismay, she was promoted and my case was passed to another whom I did not meet until the day of the tribunal. As my situation was suddenly in the hands of a stranger, I did finally feel concerned. My former PA was representing herself and I briefly considered doing the same.
However, my confidence was renewed as my new solicitor deftly handled my defence. The proceedings were informal and less intimidating than one might expect, attended only by the parties named in the complaint and three tribunal judges.
I didn’t know how I would feel to be in the same room with her after all this time. Frequently I just felt impatient. I had dealt with this intrusion for nearly two years and I wanted it finished. Personal conversations and seemingly inconsequential private events were discussed.
How my cookware fit into the legal proceedings still confounds me, but it made no less sense than any other topic we covered. After two surreal days, it was over and I was relieved to return to my regular schedule and chosen activities.
The conclusion to my case was rather anticlimactic, in the form of an e-mail from my solicitor. The tribunal had ruled in my favour, declaring that the case should never have been brought before it; nothing more or less.
Obviously I am pleased to put this chapter behind me, but I cannot deny that it served to punctuate the lessons I learned from my first personal assistant. I have worked with several different individuals since then and although the working relationships have been congenial, I never allow them to become personal. In fact, I have changed the title for this role to “professional assistant”.
And for the record, I buy my own frying pans.
In 2002 I began receiving direct payments from social services and hired my first personal assistant. I was awarded Independent Living Fund payments in 2006 and, when she asked for a pay rise, I refused. She worked for about 15 hours a week at a rate of pay that is higher than carers are generally paid.
Our working relationship became problematic early in 2007 and, by mutual consent, I cut her hours in half.
In autumn 2007, she ceased communications and stopped working for me. In December I received an e-mail informing me of her intentions to take me before an employment tribunal.
In January 2008, my former PA filed a complaint against me. The tribunal took place in July 2009 and I received the verdict in August.
Independent advice is essential to both sides, says Unison Scotland legal officer Susan Craig
Anna C Young’s experiences at the employment tribunal, while as selective as one might expect from just one side of a dispute, are instructive in pointing out the need for support for both employers like Young and for her personal assistant who, had she been a Unison member, could have had independent advice and representation at tribunal.
In Scotland, employment relations problems created by the large number of new employers were recognised by both sides. A survey of the position, funded by the Scottish Executive (now government), was jointly commissioned by Unison Scotland and the Scottish Personal Assistant Employers Network (Spaen). It reported earlier this year and found:
● A significant minority of employers failed in one or more areas of employment law, for example, not issuing contracts or job descriptions or not paying the minimum wage, meaning a significant number of employees did not receive minimum employment rights.
● Most employees did not have conditions of employment common elsewhere, including access to more annual leave than the statutory minimum, or sick pay higher than statutory sick pay.
● Many employers had difficulty in managing issues of competency and capability, and lacked effective disciplinary procedures. Neither did they know where to seek training or funding for training.
● Most worryingly, there were concerns about bullying, harassment and violence experienced by employers and employees.
In short, a significant number of employers risk having awards given against them at an employment tribunal – so the fact the failings in Young’s case led to an employment tribunal comes as no surprise.
In Scotland, steps are being taken to address the problems. The government is undertaking major research, and Unison and Spaen are starting to negotiate a dispute resolution model, and have already produced guides as support for their members.
More thought about the implications of turning people who need personal help into employers should have – but unfortunately hasn’t – resulted in more support for employers and employees, both from governments and by encouraging membership of trade unions and employer bodies that can provide independent advice.
This article is published in the 27 August 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “My big mistake: being too friendly with my PA’