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Equality case Single mum Jessica Bowes who was refused entry to Dunnes has discrimination claim rejected

Dunnes Stores had argued it was a “misunderstanding” and said Ms Bowes had not been refused entry.

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Jessica Bowes. Photo: Paddy Cummins

Jessica Bowes. Photo: Paddy Cummins

Jessica Bowes. Photo: Paddy Cummins

A woman who said she was refused entry to a Dunnes Stores during the first pandemic lockdown because she was a single mother – calling it “Magdalene Laundry stuff” -- has had her discrimination claim rejected.

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

The manager of the supermarket said he came to the entrance of the store to find a "huge scene" and that he "couldn’t get a word in edgeways" as Ms Bowes was shouting and speaking over him.

Ms Bowes made a complaint of discrimination against the supermarket 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 had argued it was a “misunderstanding” and said Ms Bowes had not been refused entry.

In a decision published today, an adjudicating officer upheld that defence, saying Ms Bowes had failed to establish a prima facie case.

Giving evidence to an adjudication hearing in January, Ms Bowes 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.

Ms Bowes told the Commission 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.

Ms Bowes 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 Ms Bowes, 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.

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Ms Bowes’s account was contested in evidence by Mr Zerfa.

He said customers were complaining of long wait times – which were as long as an hour – and management had instructed the static guards to ask people not to come in larger groups to maximise the reduced capacity of the supermarket under social distancing rules.

“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 manager who came to the entrance, John Conway, told the hearing: “I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. 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.”

Ms Bowes had claimed Mr Conway had told her she “shouldn’t be here with your kids” and that as a frontline worker in a hospital emergency department she “should appreciate what we’re doing here”. He denied making both remarks.

Closing its defence Ms Keane, for Dunnes Stores, said Ms Bowes had not been refused entry and had failed to make a case for discrimination.

In his decision, adjudicating officer Breiffni O’Neill said there was a dispute in evidence between the two parties over what was Mr Zerfa said to Ms Bowes.

“Even if I accept that the complainant was told by the Security Guard that she could not come into the supermarket because she had two children with her, which for the avoidance of doubt I do not, she stated in her evidence that she said in reply to him that she was a single mother,” he wrote.

In the written ruling, Mr O’Neill used bold italics to emphasise the words "in reply to him".

“It is clear therefore that the security guard did not know that the complainant was a single mother when he initially spoke with her, and according to the complainant, told her that she was not allowed into the store,” he said.

He added that there was an “absence of any evidence” suggesting Mr Zerfa knew her family status prior to this alleged comment and nothing to support Ms Bowes’ claim that other staff members made discriminatory remarks.

“As the Complainant has not established a prima facie case of discrimination, I find that the Respondent did not engage in prohibited conduct,” he wrote.

During the hearing, Mr Conway was cross-examined by Ms Bowes. Adjudicating officer Mr O’Neill said that the complainant had interrupted the witness a number of times during this 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,” Mr O’Neill said.

“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.

Although the matter was brought to the WRC after the time limit on cases had expired, Mr O’Neill was told that Dunnes Stores wanted the matter heard.

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