Victory for father who watched birth

Damages awarded to man who rushed to wife's bedside
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The Independent Online
A father who was sacked for taking time off to be present at the birth of his daughter was unfairly dismissed, an industrial tribunal ruled yesterday.

Robert Stennings, 39, had been refused permission to be at his wife's bedside. When he told his employer, Michael Johnson, that he was going to attend the birth, he was told: "Don't bother coming back."

Mr Johnson, 46, the head of Supa Heat central heating distributors, where Mr Stennings worked as a driver and warehouseman, told the Manchester hearing: "My company won't revolve around the birth of a child and I don't think that is unreasonable. It wasn't an emergency. It was all totally unavoidable. This was routine. Somebody's having a baby. My wife has had a baby - they are popping out all over the place."

The tribunal awarded pounds 1,735 to Mr Stennings, whose wife, Christine, gave birth to a 7lb daughter, Charlotte, after deciding Mr Johnson had acted unreasonably. But they held that Mr Stennings, of West Avenue, Burnage, Manchester, was 50 per cent to blame because he had told his firm he was going to take time off, rather than make a request.

Mr Stennings, now a packer for a biscuit firm, said: "I am absolutely delighted by the result. I would do the same again. A man should be at his wife's side. I have always been convinced I was in the right."

The tribunal was told that Mr Stennings had worked for the three-man firm in Ancoats, Manchester, for 10 years. But when he told his boss he was to be a father, Mr Johnson had said: "Don't expect time off for hospital appointments."

Mr Stennings told the hearing: "Mr Johnson said a pilot or a ship's captain would not be able to turn back a flight or a cruise because of the birth of a baby. I thought that was a ludicrous comparison."

Mr Johnson had told him he could not be present at the birth unless he gave a definite date. Mr Stennings booked a week's holiday, but on the Friday lunchtime before it was to start, he received a call to tell him his wife was in labour at St Mary's Hospital, Manchester.

"I apologised to him and said I needed to be by my wife's side," said Mr Stennings, whose wife was at the hearing. "He said not to bother coming back."

Mr Johnson said he had suggested that Mr Stennings booked two weeks' holiday to increase the chances of the baby being born while he was off, but that Mr Stennings had refused.

He said Mr Stennings' wish to stop work at short notice would have left him with disgruntled customers.

"Supa Heat can't stop because your wife is having a baby," he told Mr Stennings during cross-questioning at the hearing. "My company will not revolve around the birth of a child, and I do not consider that unreasonable."

He told the tribunal: "I will not have an employee telling me when he is coming in and when he is not. My wife spent 26 hours in labour with our first child. Did Mr Stennings want to take, God forbid, a day-and- a-half off?"

Mr Johnson, who is planning to retire by 2000, said afterwards: "I am disappointed with the result. I appreciate it was a very special occasion for Mr Stennings but he should have more respect for my company and its customers. It is another nail in the coffin of small businessmen."

Mrs Stennings said outside the hearing: "It was very important for Robert to be there.

"I had been in hospital with high blood pressure the week before with the stress of not knowing whether he would be at the birth."