Complaints by welfare staff about abuse treble
SOCIAL welfare claimants are becoming more abusive to staff in the country's offices, with the number of complaints to gardai trebling in the past three years.
The Irish Independent has already revealed how a man poured petrol over the counter of a social welfare office and threatened to set the place alight. A worker in another office had to undergo HIV tests after being spat on.
Complaints to gardai about social welfare customers engaging in threatening or abusive behaviour increased from 22 in 2010 to 37 in 2011. It doubled to 74 complaints last year.
No figures are kept by the Department of Social Protection on how many customers were prosecuted, because the complaints are made individually by staff.
The increase in complaints has coincided with a series of welfare reductions that kicked off with cuts to jobseekers' payments and child benefit in 2010.
But the department also cited a link to the significant rise in the number of claims over the period. Its 6,500 staff oversee a system that makes 87 million payments every year, and they answer 8.4 million phone calls.
Managers advise staff to consider reporting threats by customers to the gardai. Most social welfare offices have panic buttons and CCTV, and security guards are present at some.
In recent years, the department has been losing up to 71,000 days a year due to staff going on sick leave – an average absenteeism rate of 6.8pc.
Asked if the number of incidents of abuse had been a factor in sick leave, the department said this was not recorded on medical certificates.
The level of threats has led staff to express opposition to plans to remove glass security screens at revamped dole offices.
But the department received the go-ahead to install screenless counters in reception areas with the aim of making workers appear more open and approachable.
A spokeswoman said: "The move to implement this approach followed discussions with unions, an independent health and safety assessment, an arbitration finding in favour of the department and, finally, the agreement of the one dissenting union."