Mother fights dismissal over sickness record: Barrie Clement interviews a council official who was sacked for taking nearly 400 days' sick leave in three years

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The Independent Online
SAFFIYYAH MIRZA was dubbed 'Queen of the Skivers' in the tabloid papers when she was dismissed from her pounds 16,500-a-year job as a housing officer with Hackney council in east London.

In a leaked council memorandum, John Scott, her manager, suggested Mrs Mirza, a 32-year- old mother of one child, should appear in the Guinness Book of Records because of her absences.

She has appealed to the council against her dismissal and will produce medical evidence to support her case, including a note signed by the council's own medical officer.

Mrs Mirza believes she was dismissed after taking nearly 400 days' sick leave in three years to appease those who are angry about the poor work record of some council employees. Liberal Democrat opposition councillors, however, argue that she has exploited her illness to abuse a generous system, repeatedly returning to work just before the disciplinary procedure was triggered.

Tommy Sheppard, deputy leader of the council, said at the time of her dismissal that, while he was sympathetic to her illness, 'we cannot keep the job open any longer'. In an interview with the Independent, Mrs Mirza said her need to take time off work could be traced back to two serious gynaecological operations and to whiplash injuries suffered in a car crash.

In 1989, she had her first major operation when she was still suffering from spinal problems caused by the accident.

As a consequence she took several months' sick leave and was prescribed pain-killers. 'I have got an eight-inch vertical scar from my navel down because of the operations and I am in constant pain,' she said.

'The dismissal means I don't have any credibility as a worker. I'm a good worker and a hard worker. I didn't skive. I didn't walk around the office and I wasn't on the phone all day. I did everything by the book. I've got 28 years of working life left. What do I do? Where do I go?'

She started work with Hackney council in March 1987. After a spell away from the housing office in Dalston, she returned to a new, tougher regime and she believes she was victimised because of her sickness record. She worked in the reception area of the office, mostly dealing with angry council tenants who had been refused transfers to other houses.

'Increasingly my job was to say 'no'. I had to tell women that although there were cockroaches in their child's cot, there was no chance of a move.' She said she suffered abuse from tenants and from management. Lifting heavy files made her condition worse and so did the need to climb up and downstairs to relay messages to backroom staff who did not deal with the public.

On 15 February, council officials met and decided to dismiss her. Although she had been warned about her attendance record, Mrs Mirza said the question of dismissal had not been raised until she was sacked. 'They have not even gone through their own procedure before sacking me,' she said. Rizwan Razaq, assistant director of housing at the council, said there were detailed procedures to deal with staff sickness and the authority was sympathetic to the small number of staff who were 'very seriously ill'.

He added: 'Where extended absences frustrate the delivery of a service, we have to consider the position of the people who depend on it. As far as Ms Mirza is concerned she was not sacked. Her contract was terminated beause she could no longer fulfil the conditions of it.'

He refused to go into the details of the case pending the appeal.

Absences cost the council pounds 4.5m a year in 1991-92, when each employee was away from work an average 16 days a year. Because of a crackdown that figure is now down to 13.4 days, compared with a national local authority average of 12.

A council official said that in the past three years, one person had been off work for 400 days, four for more than 300 days, three for more than 200 days and seven for more than 100 days.