MORE than 1,000 teachers were warned last year that their pay was at risk of being withdrawn if they took too many sick days.
These primary and secondary school teachers had been absent for between 90 days and 260 days in the past four years. They were warned that if their level of absences exceeded 365 days in a four-year period, their salary payments would be halted.
"In the event of your continued absence, your entitlement to salary will expire on (specified date)," the letters said.
It means that teachers out sick for more than 260 days in four years have missed the equivalent of at least an entire school year in the period -- given that the primary school year lasts 183 days, while secondary schools open for 167 days.
The Department of Education did not have a breakdown of what happened after the 669 primary teachers and 415 secondary teachers got the warning letters.
But it has confirmed that 115 teachers are currently out on long-term sick leave with no pay because they have exceeded the sick leave limit. Teachers can claim seven days of uncertified sick leave each year -- but must be certified as unfit to work by their doctors to qualify for sick pay after that.
But teacher unions have maintained that the overall level of sick leave among teachers is low and that many of the teachers who were warned about their high sick leave last year had serious illnesses such as cancer, heart conditions and depression.
The 1,084 teachers who got warning letters account for just 2pc of the 52,000 teachers working in primary and secondary schools. Teachers who are on sick leave during weekends and school holidays also have this included in their sick leave tally. The Department of Education said this was "in line with civil service norms".
The average absenteeism rate for primary teachers is eight days, and 7.4 days for secondary school teachers -- compared to 11.3 days for civil service staff.
At the same time, it emerged that a new policy put in place three years ago has led to a huge drop in uncertified sick leave taken by teachers.
The department no longer pays for a school to hire a substitute teacher for the first day of uncertified sick leave.
As a result, uncertified sick leave among primary teachers has dropped by 58pc from 60,128 days in the 2007-2008 school year when the policy was not in place to 24,578 in the 2010-2011 school year.
And uncertified sick leave among secondary teachers has dropped by 64pc from 48,136 days in 2007-2008 to 16,984 days in 2010-2011.
Labour Dublin South West TD Eamonn Maloney said he had been told by a school principal that the level of sick leave by some teachers is lowering morale among hard-working teachers -- and is putting more stress and workload on them.
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) denied this, saying that substitute teachers were allowed for long-term sick leave -- and said teachers were as supportive as possible to their absent colleagues.
It said the warning letter system had been put in place at its request so that teachers on sick leave knew if they were at risk of losing their salary.
"INTO case work files indicate that roughly half of teachers on long-term sick leave are dealing with cancer diagnoses, treatment or recovery," a spokesman said.
The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland said the secondary teachers getting letters were experiencing serious illnesses.
Teachers who are absent for more than 84 days in one year have to attend the official occupational health service run by the private company Medmark. And teachers can have their right to uncertified sick leave withdrawn if they take the full seven days year-after-year or have "unduly frequent" absences.