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'It's absolutely crazy, it really is' - high staff turnover in Donegal blamed for maternity benefit backlog

The Department of Social Protection has apologised for the ‘unacceptable’ delay being seen in the delivery of maternity benefits.

shutterstock_336091328 Source: Shutterstock/Tatiana Chekryzhova

A NUMBER OF women, both pregnant and who have already given birth, have spoken out about the ongoing delay in processing and payment of the State maternity benefit.

The benefit, which amounts to €235 per week for expectant mothers, has seen a number of backlogs in recent months.

Ordinarily, a pregnant woman is advised to apply for the benefit at least six weeks prior to her going on maternity leave. At present, doing so does not seem sufficient to beat the backlog.

It has now emerged that over 2,850 claims for maternity benefit are waiting to be processed, with 1,300 of them applying to women who have already commenced their maternity leave. Currently there are roughly 18,500 such claimants in the country.

One Dublin-based woman applied for her benefit in January. Her baby was born in late March. She expected her payment to be first paid on 4 April. It didn’t happen.

In fact she had to wait a further 27 days for her first payment.

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“I feel that if these delays occurred in any other department they would not be tolerated,” she told TheJournal.ie this week.

Women starting maternity are in a very vulnerable place at an expensive time in their lives. I hardly had time to brush my teeth not to mind having to spend 30 minutes on hold to speak to very kind but incredibly overstretched staff in the Department of Social Protection.

Another woman, who first spoke to TheJournal.ie regarding her own delayed benefit last month, meanwhile has yet to receive her own benefit. She had applied for her own payment a full nine weeks in advance of the beginning of her maternity leave.

‘Absolutely crazy’

A response from the Department of Social Protection at the time indicated that it was “not possible to give an accurate date of process”. That response was delivered more than three weeks ago.

“There’s literally nothing that’s happened since,” she said this week. “That email was the last communication I’ve gotten from them. There’s been no update, there’s been no apology regarding the delay.”

I’m in a lucky situation in that I’m going to be getting a salary while I’m on leave, but a lot of those in the private sector will be stuck. When the story first came out a lady in my work went on maternity leave. She was due to have the baby four days ago. She still hasn’t heard anything. It’s insane, it’s absolutely crazy, it really is.

These are just two women among many that TheJournal.ie spoke to this week concerning the delay in processing their benefit.

Last week, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar apologised for the delays being seen, but admitted that the problems are likely to continue “for a few weeks more”.

The Department of Social Protection has now acknowledged, in a statement to TheJournal.ie, that the issue stems from “a high turnover of staff in our Buncrana (Co Donegal) office which processes maternity claims”.

0353 Social Protection_s contract_90506487 Leo Varadkar Source: Leah Farrell

We have also experienced challenges in recruiting replacement staff and once recruited it takes time for staff to be fully trained.  In relation to the operational issues, a new IT system has recently been introduced and has taken time to bed in fully.  The new system supports online applications and is working as planned.

Expectant mothers are now being encouraged by the Department to apply for their benefit via the above-mentioned online portal, as applications can be processed far more quickly in this manner than those received by post (which take an average of six weeks).

Six additional staff have been assigned to help in clearing the backlog, a spokesperson said.

“We are extremely sorry for any worry or concern this may cause our customers,” they said, adding that pregnant applicants should now “expect to have their claim processed within a maximum of three to four weeks of commencing their leave”.

We recognise that this is not an acceptable delay.

It’s understood that there is no similar backlog for fathers who have applied for paternity benefit, for which 1,800 applications are currently outstanding.

‘Disgrace’

“It’s such a disgrace, and the worst is that they don’t even contact you in advance to let you know that there’ll be a delay,” one Kerry mother, who went four weeks without pay in the wake of her baby’s birth, says.

Thank God I had a partner to keep me going for those few weeks financially. I don’t know how they expect people to cope who don’t have that support and especially with a new-born baby.

“It was highly stressful for us, an unnecessary stress after having a new baby,” says another mother who gave birth in late April. “My husband is a stay-at-home dad so we’re highly reliant on my income. Our mortgage was due a few days after the payment finally came in, and we were quite literally living off savings we’d put away for the baby.”

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I rang and emailed the DSP multiple times and while they were always polite all they could ever tell me was that I was in the queue.

The backlog is not the only problem that has been affecting couples in this situation recently.

“I was lucky I was breastfeeding,” says a new Dublin mother. “If we had the added cost / pressure of formula on top of coming home with a new baby and no money we would have cracked.”

This woman’s husband was denied paternity benefit as his paternity claim was dated before her due date (in this case the young woman delivered her baby two weeks early).

“We got everything sorted in the end but only after a letter from his employer confirmed I had given birth and he had taken leave. As it was, it meant with my payment delayed and his denied we had a two-week gap in the month with no income from either of us.”

A similar issue was created for a Cork mother, due to give birth later in May, who was told in Mid-April that she had no claim registered despite having posted her application in late January. This woman only heard of the issue with her application after a friend advised her that she had been waiting too long for a response. The issue in this case appears to have been the fact that her employer had filled out their section “too early” (by three days).

Read: ‘I thought it was a hangover, but it was more sinister’ – Cork man diagnosed with brain tumour at 25

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