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Woman fired for eating co-worker’s chocolate bar wins back job

A woman and her employer reached a settlement on Wednesday in a case over how she was fired without notice from her job of 30 years over eating a colleague's chocolate bar.

Woman fired for eating co-worker's chocolate bar wins back job
File photo of an unrelated chocolate bar: DPA

The woman, Juliane L., had been employed as a care worker at a facility for disabled children for more than three decades, when she was fired in February without notice over accusations that she ate a colleague’s chocolate bar worth €2.50, and also used a work washing machine for private purposes.

The employer had argued that these were violations of house rules, and that she had repeatedly stolen other items. Aside from the chocolate bar, the employer said she had taken a colleague’s bag without consent and given it to a student as a “secret Santa” gift.

At the age of 64, Juliane L. was up for retirement in just a few years.

A Heidelberg court found that the personal use of a facility washing machine had not been explicitly forbidden, and that the fate of the €10 bag could not be clarified. Therefore the only remaining allegation was regarding the chocolate bar.

But the judge also noted that the chocolate bar had been replaced.

“Infringing on someone's property is still not funny,” said judge Daniel Obst.

The two parties agreed to the terms of a settlement suggested by Obst, stipulating that Juliane L. would accept a formal disciplinary warning for consuming the chocolate, and that her employment contract would resume.

“We do not want to hurt the woman,” said employer spokesman for SRH-Gruppe Nils Birschmann.

He added that the woman's termination was not so much about the chocolate bar, but about setting an example for the children at the centre.

“With my head held high, I have done nothing wrong,” said the 64-year-old. “I do not feel relieved.”

A similar case also in Heidelberg was heard in court as well on Thursday. A journalist was fired without notice from her local publication because she was using the office mail system for personal mail. The total cost of the postage she used: €3.70.

SEE ALSO: German court rules bosses can't use keyboard-tracking software to spy on workers

For members

READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

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