Specifically, the question was whether the staff representatives of an airline can demand to attend an in-person training event at a distant location, even though the same provider offered virtual participation in the training event. The employer wanted to cover the costs of the training event, but not the travel and accommodation costs incurred for attending the event in person.
In its decision of February 7, 2024 (7 ABR 8/23), the German Federal Labor Court now clarified that the staff representatives not only have leeway in the selection of the training event, but also in the selection of the training format. The additional costs incurred for accommodation and meals at in-person events must then be borne by the employer.
Facts of the Case
In this case, the staff representatives of an airline applied for two of their new members to attend a training course on works constitution law in Binz on the island of Rügen. This cost-intensive format was rejected by the employer. The members then switched to a cheaper, albeit in the employer’s opinion still too expensive, alternative offer for the same training in Potsdam. The total costs consisted of the seminar costs for two participants amounting to € 1,528.00 as well as accommodation and travel costs of € 1,108.62 plus VAT.
The defendant subsequently refused to reimburse the costs on the grounds that the staff council members could have taken part in a webinar on works constitution law held by the same training provider, which was identical in terms of time and content and would have incurred considerably lower costs (due to the absence of accommodation and travel costs).
Decision of the German Federal Labor Court
The German Federal Labor Court has now ruled that the employer must also bear the additional costs of the face-to-face event and thus confirmed the case law of the lower courts (previously: Düsseldorf State Labor Court, decision of November 24, 2022 – 8 TaBV 59/21). Pursuant to Sec. 40 para. 1 in conjunction with Sec. 37 para. 6 sent. 1, (2) of the German Works Constitution Act (Betriebsverfassungsgesetz – BetrVG), works and staff councils are entitled to have the costs of training courses covered as part of their activities within the scope of the works constitution. This also includes accommodation and catering costs, insofar as these are necessary.
The employer’s obligation to bear the costs in accordance with Sec. 40 para. 1 BetrVG is subject to the requirement of trusting cooperation with the staff representatives standardized in Sec. 2 para. 1 BetrVG. When assessing the necessity, the staff representatives must take into account the operational situation and the financial impact on the employer in connection with participation in the training event. The purpose of the training must be proportionate to the resources required.
However, the staff representatives have a certain amount of discretion when choosing the specific training offer. The German Federal Labor Court emphasizes that the staff representatives were within their right to consider participation in the training and the resulting costs to be necessary within the scope of their discretionary powers. This is not precluded from the outset by the fact that attending a face-to-face event regularly incurs higher costs than virtual participation. However, there was no qualitative equivalence between a webinar and face-to-face training in the present case. In terms of time, the online training only comprised 75% of the face-to-face seminar and the learning effect was to be classified as significantly higher for a face-to-face event than for a digital format. The staff representatives were therefore not obligated to take the webinar class instead in this specific case.
In our view, this decision is highly relevant in practice. The topic of “training costs for employee representatives” often leads to disagreements. While digital offerings primarily offer advantages for the employer, the benefits of face-to-face events often outweigh those for the representatives, particularly with regard to the opportunity for discussion and exchange on site.
As a result, employers may want to examine the specific selection of seminars and the number and selection of persons to be specifically trained, but they should not disregard the discretionary scope of the staff representatives. An argument based purely on cost will likely no longer hold up in court in the future after this recent case law.
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