Life is a divine gift that can be very unpredictable at times. From day to day, none of us knows whether we will encounter a situation, whether natural or man-made, that will turn our entire lives in a completely different direction. We may leave home one day to go to work as normal and may sustain an injury on the job or elsewhere, or based on environmental conditions at the workplace, develop a serious illness that renders us unable to work.
Such has been the case for at least 190 former members of the civil service in Barbados who were declared medically unfit and were forced to leave their jobs as a result. Following the brave step one such worker, Janice Harris, took earlier this year to go directly to the House of Assembly to seek answers from those in authority, recently, the Government declared that all these afflicted persons would receive the money owed to them.
However, this has not been the case, and some individual situations are rather dire. For example, Phyllis Knight, who worked at the Psychiatric Hospital for some 32 years, told Barbados TODAY, “I signed up in August 2018 to have a reduced pension until I reached 67, and when I called in March this year they told me I would not get a reduced pension, but only my gratuity.” Knight, who has trigeminal neuralgia, is now receiving an invalidity benefit of $1,156, which leaves her with practically nothing after she pays for her home and makes a payment to her credit union.
Another worker, DeCarla Alleyne, who was an orthopaedic nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, was declared medically unfit in December last year. She has seen her pension go down to $900 when her house rent is $1,150 a month and her husband’s farm has been unable to produce any crops owing to the present drought. Both Alleyne and Knight declared that ideally if Government stops one pension, they can look at giving the workers an invalidity cheque that will combine the elements of both pensions so they can at least look after themselves and their families more adequately.
The dilemma seems to stem from the Pensions Act, which states in part, “Officers who entered the service after September 1, 1975, who qualify for pension are subject to abatement of pension. That means if a person is eligible for both a National Insurance and Government pension, the higher of the two will be provided.” The act also makes provision for what it calls a “cost of living allowance”, “which is obtained when the Government provides an increase in pensions across the board. If you are in receipt of a pension already, your monthly payment will not change, but the difference will be given as a cost of living allowance.”
In terms of the medically unfit, “Special provisions are made for people who retire medically unfit. In this case, the individual must have a minimum of ten years in service but less than 20 years. The pension will be calculated at twenty years of service but it cannot exceed the amount worked for before retiring medically unfit. If a person is the victim of an employment injury (i.e. got hurt while on the job) they are eligible for an additional 1/6 of the pension.”
There is little clarity on how the “medical boarding” process works in Barbados. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) says “Fitness to work is a medical assessment done when an employer wishes to be sure an employee can safely do a specific job or task. It is most often done to determine medical fitness after an illness or injury, but sometimes employers request them after a job offer or after workers are transferred.”
These assessments are carried out for several different reasons, including if the job has been modified and the worker is still undergoing physiotherapy or rehabilitation; if the worker is returning after recovering from a serious illness or injury; if medical conditions will prevent the worker from doing his or her job effectively (for example, musculoskeletal conditions that may limit mobility); or a medical condition will either make it unsafe for the employee to carry out his or her job or could be potentially hazardous to co-workers or the general public.
In the UK, “once you are off sick for four weeks or more, you are considered long term sick. However, before dismissing a worker, an employer must look at ways to make it easier for you to return to work, which might involve shorter working hours or different duties”. Alleyne said she had tried to discuss this with the QEH following an injury to her foot which made it difficult for her to walk or stand for prolonged periods of time, but instead she was reassigned to the Orthopaedic Ward, which she described as “the hardest ward in the hospital, and after two days, the nurse in charge told me to go home because she saw I could not handle it. But I was willing to do a desk job, or work at a polyclinic, to maintain my job because my injury was not that severe. I saw nurses who had cancer get reassigned to different posts and they stayed there until they died.”
There is no word as to how the private sector in Barbados manages this dilemma, as we are sure they have their share of workers in similar predicaments. Nevertheless, we must ask whether it is fair to employees who would have diligently invested their time and energy into the workforce when they were in good health to suffer now because they are incapacitated? They still have families to support and obligations such as rent, mortgages, car payments and utility bills, and to go from a substantial salary to a considerably lower pension payment, or no pension at all, does not reduce the level of their obligation.
That is why the former employer, the medical board, the NIS and other relevant departments must let the afflicted workers know from the very beginning what their pensions will look like so they can inform their creditors, work out payment plans with them, and still have enough left to support themselves on a daily basis.
Better yet, it might be wise for workers to invest in life insurance policies, which might be able to assist them, provided that they can meet the payments on their reduced income.