Passport backlogs as workers take double average sick days
THE passport service is being hit by unusually high rates of sick leave, with staff taking almost twice as many days off due to illness as other civil servants.
Workers at some of the service's offices call in sick 13 days a year, almost double the amount of time taken by colleagues elsewhere in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It is also far more than the six days a year private-sector workers take on average.
The high level of sick leave is contributing to backlogs, with applicants recently having to wait up to 15 days for a new passport rather than the usual 10.
In recent weeks, up to 50,000 applications have been behind schedule at any one time. However, despite this, the department has played down the unusually high rates of sick leave affecting each of its three facilities in Dublin city centre, Balbriggan in Co Dublin and Cork city.
The union representing staff has also rejected fears that a culture of absenteeism existed and said no disciplinary action had been taken against workers for abuses of sick leave.
Records obtained by the Irish Independent under freedom of information rules show passport staff in Balbriggan and Cork took an average of 13 days' sick leave last year -- compared with just 6.9 days elsewhere in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Meanwhile, staff at the passport office in Molesworth Street, Dublin, where there have been lengthy queues, took an average of 10.9 sick days each during 2010. The records show the trend continued in the first six months of this year. The average number of sick days taken in the passport service offices in Cork, Balbriggan and Molesworth Street were 6.9, 6.8 and 5.1 respectively.
In contrast, the average figure for sick days taken elsewhere in the department between January and June was just 3.5.
As a consequence of recent backlogs, the passport service, which already employs 328 people, has been forced to hire in 84 temporary workers at a cost of €362,000.
Overtime payments totalling €457,000 have also had to be made this year to keep up with demand.
This is on top of an overtime bill of €1.7m last year and €844,000 the year before.
High levels of absenteeism in passport offices were previously flagged in 2008, when a KPMG report found sick leave was impacting on the efficiency of the service.
Despite this, the Civil and Public Services Union (CPSU), which represents staff, insisted it was surprised by the levels of absenteeism revealed in the figures obtained by the Irish Independent.
CPSU assistant general secretary Theresa Dwyer said if management felt an absenteeism problem existed, it was open to them to use disciplinary procedures to deal with it.
"It is a difficult place to work in. There's a lot of stress. But I think our members work to it very well," she said.
"The sick-leave regulations are there. If members are not adhering to them, there's an action to be taken."
Under a new policy brought in last year, all public servants have to provide a medical certificate if they are absent for two days or more.
Their managers are also supposed to hold meetings with them if they are repeatedly absent, and disciplinary action can be taken.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said it did not accept absenteeism was a major factor in passport processing delays.
It said exceptional demand during the summer months was the main reason for the backlog.
Fine Gael Mayo TD John O'Mahony, who has raised the issue of the passports backlog repeatedly in the Dail, said it was up to Mr Gilmore to sort out the issue.
"They shouldn't have any higher average (for absenteeism) than the department and there has to be a reason for it," he said.