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'physically sick' Jessica Bowes tells hearing Dunnes Stores discriminated against her because she was single mum

Ms Bowes told a hearing that she felt 'physically sick' and 'degraded,' adding that the incident was 'Magdelene laundry stuff'

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Jessica Bowes. Photo: Paddy Cummins

Jessica Bowes. Photo: Paddy Cummins

Jessica Bowes. Photo: Paddy Cummins

An essential worker claims Dunnes Stores discriminated against her as a single mother by refusing her and her children entry to a supermarket during the first pandemic lockdown.

Jessica Bowes claims she overheard a security guard at the store call a manager and say: “I have a single mother here, can I let her in?”

Ms Bowes told a Workplace Relations Commission hearing that she felt "physically sick" and "degraded,” adding that the incident was “Magdelene laundry stuff”.

Dunnes Stores submits that the incident was a “misunderstanding” and says that Ms Bowes was not refused entry to the supermarket.

Ms Bowes has lodged a complaint of discrimination against Dunnes Stores on the grounds of family status under the Equal Status Act arising from an alleged refusal at its supermarket in the Mill Shopping Centre, Ninth Lock Road, Clondalkin, Dublin 22 on 29 April 2020.

Dunnes Stores denies the claim. They say staff were not aware of Ms Bowes’s family status and there was no rule about the number of people attending the supermarket on that date – only advice they were giving to try and control the number of people in the queue.

Ms Bowes, a law student, represented herself in the hearing this morning.

In her submission she said she was the only parent of three children, including a boy who is autistic. She said at the time she was only in a position to arrange enough childcare to cover her working hours in a hospital emergency department. She said her work was “hammered” at the time.

Giving evidence, she said she went with her two daughters to enter the shop via a fast-track queue for essential workers and was stopped by a security guard.

He told her: “You can’t take them in,” she said.

She replied that he could not discriminate against her – and then says the guard “pointed at a yellow social distancing circle and told me to wait there” while he went to phone a manager.

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She said she heard him say: “Hi John, I have a single mother here, can I let her in?”

“I had to beg you could I come into that shop,” she said. “My eldest was outside with my eight-year-old, she was sobbing. I felt physically sick, degraded,” adding the incident was “Magdelene laundry stuff”.

Cross-examining her, Ms Deirdre Keane BL, for Dunnes Stores, put it to her that the incident was a “misunderstanding” and that the security guard, Mr Lyas Zerfa, had no way of knowing she was a single mother.

“I did tell him as a single mother. He identified me as a single mother to the store manager,” she said.

Ms Bowes accepted Dunnes Stores contacted her after she posted about the incident on Twitter, and arranged the delivery of €150 worth of groceries for free.

Ms Keane put it to her that Ms Bowes might have misinterpreted the interaction because the impact of the pandemic on her work and home life had left her “exhausted”.

“It was busy for the staff in Dunnes too,” Ms Bowes replied. “They may have been exhausted from managing the queue.”

Ms Bowes’s account was contested in evidence by the security guard, Mr Zerfa, who said that because of the number of complaints coming from customers over long wait times – which were as long as an hour – the shop’s management had instructed the static guards to ask people not to come in larger groups.

“What happened – my supervisor said ‘just let them know if someone come, one trolley one person, maximum two,” he said, and said he had not stopped Ms Bowes from entering.

“She asked me ‘are you stopping me’? I said: ‘I’m not stopping you. I can’t refuse you to go to shop, but just for next time, maximum two customer per trolley,” he told the hearing.

“Then she asked me: I want to speak with manager,” he said.

The supermarket’s general manager, Mr John Conway said he could not remember exactly what was said to him on the phone, but says he was asked to come to the door quickly because a customer wanted to see him.

Ms Bowes later submitted that she asked to speak to the manager, but only after Mr Zerfa was on the phone.

While she waited for the Mr Conway to arrive she says she saw a hospital colleague allowed to proceed into the shop with her husband and two children, and started to get upset.

“I couldn’t get a word in edgeways,” Mr Conway said in his evidence. “She began shouting and speaking over me. There was a scene, there was a huge scene… rather than make the situation worse I decided to walk away from it,” he added.

He insisted Ms Bowes wasn’t refused entry and that he didn’t know her family status.

“I don’t know the lady. I don’t know her situation,” he said.

Cross-examining Mr Conway, Ms Bowes asked whether she was “the only person that you were contacted about on the day by security”.

“The security would not ask me to come down and talk to anybody at the front door unless requested. I just got the call to come quickly,” he said.

Ms Bowes put it to him that she recalled him saying: “We are trying to reduce the amount of shoppers with children. You really shouldn’t be here with your kids – can you not get someone to mind them.”

He denied saying this.

She asked him whether he could explain saying that as a frontline worker she “should know better than anyone why the children shouldn’t be in the shop”.

“No, you were shouting that you were a frontline worker and I did say that you should appreciate what we’re doing here because of your own situation in your own workplace,” she said.

“Are you denying that you said that?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Ms Bowes put it to him that nobody else was stopped to speak with the manager.

“Everybody in that queue regardless of the numbers, including yourself, was allowed into the store. Nobody was refused,” he said.

During Mr Conway’s cross-examination by Ms Bowes, adjudicating officer Breffni O’Neill said that the complainant had interrupted the witness a number of times and he would close the hearing if she interrupted him again.

“You’ve asked him a question. You should afford him the courtesy of letting him answer. And this isn’t the first time now I’ve raised this with you.

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “This is my first time attending.”

“You’re not even listening to me now. I appreciate this is difficult but as I said before we have the whole day for this there is no rush. You’re here to admonish the respondent for showing you discourtesy. I respectfully suggest you’re not showing them much courtesy,” he said.

Closing the defence, Ms Keane, said Ms Bowes had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination on the grounds alleged and that the incident was a misunderstanding.

“I don’t know what’s going on here,” Ms Bowes said. “I was stopped and he said to me you can’t bring your children in. “I don’t know how the story has changed over time.

Adjudication officer Breffni O’Neill said it seemed the matter had been brought to the WRC too late and was “out of time”, but said that Dunnes Stores wanted the matter heard and he was reserving his position on that question.

He said he would issue his decision within two weeks.

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