In society, there are either hardworking, honest workers or those who could only care less, who just wait around for the next paycheck. That’s a harsh way to categorize workers, and I don’t think we should generalize people who belong to the working class in any way. But good worker or not, it is my firm belief that the government should do everything it can to afford workers the needed protection from their employer.
Here in the Philippines, the Department of Labor and Employment has made some efforts to address workers’ lack of protection and representation. Aside from this, there are also labor organizations and labor rights activists in the country who pool in resources and legal minds to provide the ordinary, underprivileged worker with needed backup.
Minimum-wage earners, who are already at the bottom of the food chain, turn out to be the class of workers who are easy to take advantage of. And they too, often are the easiest to dismiss improperly or illegally. They usually lack the proper defense. Already set with low self-esteem, they’re scared of losing their jobs because almost any unemployed person can take their job anytime.
The following story is only one of many stories out there where defenseless employees, because they were the easy target, were stripped of their jobs without really any solid proof of doing anything wrong. Let’s go ahead and discuss the case of National Bookstore v. Court of Appeals (G.R. No. 146741).
National Bookstore v. Court of Appeals
Once upon a time, there were two extremely loyal rank-and-file employees working for a retail chain bookstore. These two admirable Filipino citizens were named Marietta Ymasa and Edna Gabriel, respectively. Marietta worked as the Cash Custodian for National Bookstore, while Edna Gabriel was Head Cashier. They had already worked for the company for more than ten years when the incident happened.
One Sunday, Marietta and Edna went to their place of work, a National Bookstore inside a mall. This was a routine for them, as they would count yesterday’s sales. They each attended to money that was to be deposited to two separate banks, and while they were counting the money, they were of course in the presence of a watcher. Marietta and Edna prepared the deposit slips and submitted to the watcher for signing. The counted money was placed inside two separate plastic bags which were sealed by tape, and then tied together with rubber band. Marietta placed these two bags inside her cabinet, which she locked.
These plastic bags were supposed to be handed to the respective bank branch managers that Sunday, but they were both not in office, so these were instead handed to the Assistant Manager for safekeeping at the branch vault. The day after, Monday, Marietta and Edna got the plastic bags back and they placed these inside sealed plastic bags for roving tellers to pick up.
Before being deposited to the banks, the money inside the bag was recounted. And they found out that the deposit amount to one of the banks was short several thousand pesos. They tried looking for the missing money, but to no avail.
Was it Marietta’s and Edna’s fault that the cash inside the bags fell short? Were they in a heap of trouble?
Since Marietta and Edna were the employees involved in getting the right amount money deposited to the company’s bank accounts, they were the ones blamed by management. They were asked by the Personnel Manager to explain in writing why they should not be dismissed for the loss of the company funds.
Since they were the ones counting the money and then securing it before depositing, shouldn’t they both automatically get fired for losing several thousands of pesos?
How easy it was to blame two lowly employees.
Marietta and Edna were both terminated, the company finding their written explanation unsatisfactory. They were fired for gross neglect of duty and loss of confidence. And this was without prejudice to the company taking legal action to get back the several thousands of pesos allegedly stolen/lost by the two fired employees.
Was there gross neglect?
It seemed as though all hope was lost for these two lowly employees, but when they filed a case for illegal dismissal, they won. And that case got appealed by the company, but still – the appeal was denied. This went to show just how strong the case was for the two employees – they were winning against corporate!
The case was further elevated to the Court of Appeals for review, but you guessed it – the fired employees still won. And the tireless corporation that was National Bookstore wanted more lawsuits and had attorney’s fees to burn, so they went up to the Supreme Court.
But the conclusion was the same. The Supreme Court held that Marietta and Edna were indeed both illegally dismissed, finding that although the two requisites of a valid dismissal were present:
“(a) the employee must be afforded due process, i.e., he must be given an opportunity to be heard and to defend himself; and,
(b) the dismissal must be for a valid cause as provided in Art. 282 of the Labor Code or for any of the authorized causes under Arts. 283 and 284 of the same Code.”
The employer must show with convincing evidence that the dismissal was based on any of the just or authorized causes provided by law for termination of employment by an employer. The burden of proof imposed on National Bookstore hadn’t been lifted. Although National Bookstore provided evidence that they observed due process and the offense ‘gross neglect of duty and loss of confidence’ was indeed a just cause, they didn’t produce any evidence supporting their claim of gross neglect or negligence.
The court said that a perusal of the records of the case did not show in any way that Marietta and Edna were even remotely negligent of their duties so as to cause the loss of the funds. The two employees were even able to illustrate with candor and sincerity the procedure they took prior to the loss which was witnessed by a watcher. They were subjected to a thorough body search before leaving, plus they didn’t have access to the vault where the money was kept.
And so, there was no gross neglect of duty.
Your employer needs to prove your gross negligence before they can fire you for it.
The court also added that, “in order to constitute a just cause for the employee’s dismissal, the neglect of duties must not only be gross, but also habitual. Thus, the single or isolated act of negligence does not constitute a just cause for the dismissal of the employee.”
Despite the several lacks of labor law in this country of mine, I still like it somehow. Our labor law here believes in second chances. Your employer can’t fire you for an isolated act of being bad at your job – it has to be habitual.
Marietta and Edna won the case – a big win for the ordinary worker. They were granted full backwages from the time they were illegally dismissed plus allowances and other benefits. On top of that, if they couldn’t be given their old jobs back (especially since this case took more than ten years to attain finality), they got separation pay computed at one month salary for every year of service.
Despite the big win for the employee in this case, let’s not get sidetracked of the fact that Marietta and Edna were fired from their jobs for doing nothing wrong. What if they were represented by incompetent lawyers? What if they made some technical errors along the legal process?
Had the tides not been in their favor, things would have ended very badly for them. It was so easy for their company to fire them on the ground of ‘gross neglect’ – they didn’t even prove it. But as you have learned here, or at least been reminded of, gross neglect at your job, if used as a reason by your employer to get rid of you, must be sufficiently proven. Raise your defenses. Don’t take your dismissal from work lightly, if ever it happens to you. As you have seen in National Bookstore v. Court of Appeals, the ordinary employee can win big against a nationwide bookstore chain.