Monday 21 October 2019

Secretaries go on one-hour strike at school

Employees demand end to two-tier conditions

Carol Boulter, Tara Carey, Paula Gilbert and Helena Moore among the large crowd at the protest supporting the secretaries at St Brigid’s NS in Greystones on Friday
Carol Boulter, Tara Carey, Paula Gilbert and Helena Moore among the large crowd at the protest supporting the secretaries at St Brigid’s NS in Greystones on Friday

Mary Fogarty

School secretaries across the county took industrial action last week, with a work stoppage from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. last Friday, followed by 'work-to-rule' for the rest of the day.

Felicity O'Dowd, the school secretary at St Kevin's NS in Greystones, said she felt she had no choice but to take part in last Friday's work stoppage.

Flanked by teachers and parents, the popular staff member said: 'I am working 22 years and I am entitled to no sick pay and no pension. I have no recognised pay scale and every year have had to argue my case to get decent pay.

'In the beginning this was very tough to do. Now, I do it and usually fall out with people over it. I am humiliated every year asking for what should be a right.'

Under the current pay regime which is in operation since 1978, only a minority of school secretaries are employed directly by the Department of Education, giving them full rights to sick pay and pensions and other benefits. Most secretarial staff, including Felicity, are hired by school management boards.

Highlighting what she describes as 'the reality of no sick pay', Felicity said that she has never had sick pay, 'a right other members of the school community are entitled to.

'For me, this meant that during my working life, I underwent 26 hours of radiotherapy without missing a day of work.

'I also sign on for five weeks over the summer,' she said. 'Anyone who has done this will know that the process is totally humiliating and time-consuming. I am the only member of staff in my school who has to sign on.'

The government said Forsa's pay claim is a 'follow-on claim from the current pay agreement', which runs until the end of the year, adding that the union's claim will be considered shortly.

Jennifer O'Sullivan is one of three secretaries at St Kilian's Community School in Bray to participate in the campaign.

'I, personally, am extremely frustrated as I have been seeking entry into the Spouse and Children's Scheme (formerly Widows and Orphans Scheme) for the past 16 years,' said Jennifer. 'I have been refused entry into this scheme as I am a grant paid secretary,' she said. 'A man employed in my position under the exact same terms is automatically entered into this scheme,' she said. 'If I die, my 16 years of pension contributions will not be passed onto my daughter, they stay with the school,' she said. 'If I was male and died, my pension would be paid to my spouse or children. This is total discrimination.' She said that this was just one of the issues she was protesting about on Friday.

'Only two out of the three of us have a pension. The extremely basic pension we will have is more of a savings scheme as the small amount taken from our salary is retained by the school and returned to us on retirement, monthly. It is not a proper pension like the teaching staff and SNAs or department paid secretaries. We are employed and paid directly by the board of management and not the department.'

The trade union Fórsa and officials from the Department of Education met last week but the talks concluded on Wednesday morning without agreement on the issues behind planned industrial action.

The union said that the dispute is over the education department's refusal to address a two-tier pay system that leaves most earning just €12,500 a year, with irregular, short-term contracts that force them to sign on during the summer holidays and other school breaks.

'Any parent of school-going children will known that school secretaries are the heart of any school community,' said Cllr Jennifer Whitmore. 'They are the first people our children see in the morning, and they are people that help ensure the smooth running of any school.'

Cllr Whitmore was delighted to see the local support that the secretaries received at the school gates on Friday morning, with many parents and teachers taking time to stand with them. 'This reflects the high regard in which they are held, and acknowledges their often unsung but hugely important work.

'It's time that the Department of Education value the important work that these secretaries do and ensure they are treated fairly and directly employed by the Department.'

Deputy John Brady visited a number of pickets in County Wicklow on Friday morning.

'Our school secretaries are invaluable members of our school and our communities, often working above and beyond their job requirements,' he said.

'They work on the front line, and are the first port of call for parents and students. Without them, our schools would simply not function. I want them to know that they have the full support of myself and Sinn Féin. Their claim is entirely justified. All they ask is to be employed as public servants, with the same contractual security as their colleagues.'

'While school secretaries are commonly the longest serving, most trusted and often the most indispensable members of staff, they are utterly neglected under the current model of employment,' said Deputy Stephen Donnelly. 'The current model denies secretaries the kind of security that workers in this country should be able to take for granted.'

Bray People