Storm over teachers’ sick leave

Zandile Mbabela

TWO prominent Nelson Mandela Bay psychiatrists are at the centre of a storm over teachers being put on sick leave for extended periods – sometimes up to three years at a time.

Education department officials pinpointed well-known doctors Ian Taylor and Peter Crafford whom, they say, have been issuing certificates to teachers at the drop of a hat.

Crafford has refused to comment on the matter but Taylor this week hit back, saying if the department was doing its job properly then stressed-out teachers would not be flocking to psychiatrists’ sofas in their droves.

Officials in the Port Elizabeth education district – where 105 teachers are currently on temporary incapacity leave, or TIL – say Crafford and Taylor are the main “culprits” booking teachers off for extended periods.

TIL is granted at the department’s discretion once staff have used up the 36-day sick leave cycle allotted to them every three years.

TIL is not meant to last longer than three to six months at most, but instead some teachers are sitting at home for up to three years while pocketing salaries. Substitute teachers must then be hired in what has become known as the “double parking” phenomenon.

The province’s teachers owe the department millions of rands in unpaid leave following its recent crackdown on the alleged abuse of TIL.

Some teachers whose TIL applications were declined are now getting their salaries docked for unpaid leave – and are dragging the department before the Labour Court to lodge disputes.

The department blames teachers and doctors for being in cahoots and taking advantage of the “privilege” of TIL, but psychiatrists say its dismal management of employees’ sick leave is at the root of the problem.

“It is not the doctors and teachers who are abusing incapacity leave, but the department’s own inefficiencies that have led to this problem,” Taylor told Weekend Post.

On being identified by the department as one of the psychiatrists booking people off willy-nilly, Taylor said: “I happen to have a very busy practice and people often refer their friends or colleagues to me. Not once have I ever issued a certificate without actually consulting and assessing a patient.”

When a teacher applies for TIL, it is provisionally granted. The department then has 30 days to investigate, through independent doctors or a risk manager, whether the ailment warrants the time off. The department must then inform the employee if the incapacity leave is approved or declined.

But PE’s Human Resource Development and Labour Relations chief education specialist, Mphakamisi Hlekani, admitted the department had a “serious challenge” in responding to TIL applications. “Some responses take two to three years, ultimately owing the department up to R500 000 at times.” This resulted in some teachers staying at home believing their leave was approved.

Both Hlekani and the Assistant Labour Relations director for the district, Cedric Pillay, named Taylor and Crafford as psychiatrists booking teachers off for long periods.

Pillay said the use of TIL had reached “catastrophic proportions”. Before 2012, there were about 465 teachers on leave in Port Elizabeth.

This figure went up to 496 last year, but has gone down to 105 this year, which the department attributes to the salary deductions and threats of unpaid leave. It says some teachers “simply don’t want to work”, but psychiatrists insist teachers come to them with genuine psychological conditions, mainly depression.

Taylor accused the department of not taking teachers’ mental illnesses as a result of their working conditions seriously. “I have seen teachers who have been teaching for over 30 years and are not yet at retirement age who are battling to cope with current changes. Some are assaulted by pupils and find it difficult to keep returning to a place where they are in constant fear of attack,” he said.

Another psychiatrist, who asked to remain anonymous, said the department refused to accept teachers’ psychiatric problems as real illnesses.

“They are not accepting our findings, forcing teachers to return to work by stopping their salaries and deducting monies for unpaid leave,” he said. “Because the department has been so dysfunctional for years, some teachers have been booked off for so long. The problem now is that the department is deducting R50 000 or R100 000 from their salaries, which is a stress on its own.”

Hlekani said the department was exploring ways to recoup the money “without bankrupting teachers”.

Motherwell’s Khulile Primary School principal George Lukwe said changes in the workplace placed “immense pressure and stress” on teachers.

“As principals we understand and don’t second-guess doctors’ diagnoses. The department’s claims of abuse are an insult to teachers.”

Govan Mbeki Township’s Gertrude Shoppe Primary School principal Nkosinathi Mzuzu said there was a degree of abuse by teachers but the department’s management of leave was a big problem.

“Some people are genuinely sick and need to be boarded, but are declined. Then you have some who request time off from doctors simply because of differences with their colleagues,” he said.

This is a version of an article that appeared in
the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, August 10, 2013.

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