Tuesday 26 September 2017

Social welfare workers spat on and threatened

Edel Kennedy

a man poured a can of petrol over the counter of a social welfare office and threatened to set the place alight, while a worker in another office had to undergo HIV tests and vaccinations for Hepatitis after being spat on by a homeless woman.

These were just two of the incidents staff at social welfare offices have faced as they are increasingly being abused, spat on and assaulted as they go about their work.

In recent months, workers have been threatened with shootings and stabbings by disgruntled benefits clients.

And in some offices, gardai and security guards have to be on standby as rivals in criminal gangs attack each other.

Details of the shocking attacks are revealed in files obtained by the Irish Independent.

However, despite the growing number of incidents, the Department of Social Protection (DSP) is pushing ahead with plans to remove glass security screens.

This is despite warnings from staff that they are facing increasing levels of abuse and threats.

One employee in Tallaght in Dublin -- one of the country's busiest offices -- said they experienced two incidents in March this year, in which claimants became verbally abusive.

"Having worked in the service dealing directly with the public for almost 30 years, I find these events deeply disturbing.

"Those of us who work at the frontline are increasingly having to deal with unreasonable expectations by some members of the public."

Workers at four offices voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action if the DSP goes ahead with plans to abolish the screens at "high-risk" offices.

User-friendly

A total of 122 staff at unemployment offices in Kings Inn and Tallaght in Dublin, Arklow, and Sligo have backed industrial action. Only seven voted against.

A spokesman for the Civil, Public and Services Union (CPSU) said they understood that the DSP was trying to make the system more user-friendly and to increase contact between the claimant and their case officer -- but he questioned why they were choosing to introduce the pilot scheme in some of the most trouble-hit offices.

He also pointed out that while screens were removed in similar offices in the UK, they were now in the process of re-installing them.

"Some offices are a disaster zone," he said.

"On any given day there are armed gardai on site, or outside the building at least. The staff take advice from the gardai on who is likely to be in what gang and they separate their appointments so that they don't come into contact with one another."

He said the armed gardai were there to protect the staff and members of the public from the criminals -- and the criminals from rival gangs.

He added that "low-level criminals" could also cause trouble by spitting at the glass that separates them from staff, and by throwing items at the glass.

The internal DSP documents show that one man who had been attending Damastown Health Centre in Dublin 15 was told he could no longer attend in person and could only communicate in writing with a senior member of staff after he became abusive and tried to kick down a security door.

The CPSU spokesman said most customers were legitimate -- but a small proportion were not entitled to money and could cause trouble when their claims were examined.

He added that there was "no great cry" from the public to get rid of the glass.

"In wider society, a glass screen isn't unusual. They're in post offices, banks and petrol stations."

Panic buttons have been installed in most offices. Security guards are also present at some offices, with CCTV now installed at most.

A spokeswoman for the DSP said staff who were subjected to any kind of verbal or physical assault could go to the Employee Assistance Officer, who is assigned to assist staff.

It is up the individual staff member to decide whether to avail of the service and therefore they do not hold statistics on how many sought help.

Of the 6,828 DSP staff, there are 21 absent due to stress, with a "minority" stating it is work-related stress.

The DSP does not have figures available for how many welfare recipients have been ordered to communicate via letter or by appointment only.

A spokeswoman said they also did not have records of incidents when charges had been brought against violent claimants.

Irish Independent

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