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'It's soul destroying': The school secretaries that don't get paid for the Christmas holidays

“I was in the dole office before Christmas to sign on, and it takes ages each year,” one school secretary said.

Image: Shutterstock/Anastassiya Bezhekeneva

A NUMBER OF school secretaries are not paid for the two weeks of the Christmas period, nor for Easter, midterm or summer breaks.

During these periods, school secretaries might sign up for Social Welfare. It’s not all school secretaries who don’t get paid during these periods; those who do get paid and those who don’t is related to the different sources used to pay the country’s school secretaries.

Some get a salary directly from the Department of Education and Skills worth between €24,000 and €44,711, while others are paid through an ‘ancillary grant’. This means that whatever money is leftover from the grant goes towards paying secretaries; sometimes a secretary’s hours are cut if there isn’t enough to pay them.

Those paid through the ancillary grant are in precarious employment, their hours and pay dependant on the school’s expenditure each year. Trade Union Fórsa says it’s unclear whether secretaries are on contracts, and it’s difficult to define their employment status. 

The secretaries TheJournal.ie spoke to said that this creates complications for those paying mortgages or renting, and leaves them without a State pension when they retire.

For example, one school secretary who will be retiring next year will have worked at the school for 30 years and will have no pension.

The difference in the modes of payment came about in 1978, after a scheme was introduced that meant school secretaries were paid directly by the Department of Education. But after 1982, no new appointments were made under this scheme. It’s estimated that around 10% of the country’s secretaries are paid directly by the Department.

From 1994 onwards, all new school secretaries were paid under the ancillary grant. They are not classified as public servants, and some of those paid through the grant are not paid during school holidays.

No Christmas payments

Bernadette Dillon, who has been a secretary at a primary school in Co Clare, hasn’t been paid for the Christmas period in her 14 years at the school. She gets paid between €16,000 – €17,000 a year for working 30 hours a week, five days a week. 

She’s paid through the ancillary grant, which is worth over €60,000 to the school.

“They don’t have to pay me a certain amount, and they don’t have to tell the Department what they spend the grant on,” she told TheJournal.ie.

During the Christmas months, Dillon signs on but says sometimes the paperwork involved isn’t worth it.

I was in the dole office before Christmas to sign on, and it takes ages every year. They ask you ‘Are you looking for work?’ ‘Have you children?’ It drives me crazy.

This year, Dillon was told that she hadn’t paid enough through taxes to be entitled to the dole, and that she would need a letter from the school’s board of management.

I told them that I’ve never stopped working. It’s soul destroying.

She signs on in October, February, Easter and the summer. She said that there’s been an increased awareness of the inequality between secretaries in recent years, and adds that a lot of parents and other secretaries don’t know about the inequality.

Every member of staff will walk out on the last day of school before the Christmas break with pay, and I will be the only one who won’t get full pay on those days. 

One school secretary who has worked for years at a school in Navan hasn’t been paid for the Christmas period since she began, and recently wrote to TDs to outline her position.

“I am very aware of the pivotal role I play in the school. I am the liaison person for teachers, parents and pupils of the school, I am PA to the Principal, I also run payroll, revenue tax collection, accounts, assist with the maintenance management of the school as well as a host of other jobs too long to list out.”

She’s paid through the ancillary grant, and is paid less than €19,000 a year for 29 hours a week, and says that she’s juggling a “substantial and wide variety of jobs” daily.

She says that if her work was regular, she would earn over €30,000 a year. But she works “eight hours less per week and 12 weeks less in the year as a result of the restrictions of the ancillary grant system”.

This is not the fault of the school, she says, but the “lack of recognition by the government of the importance of the role of the school secretary”.

I work every bit as hard and get paid considerably less, have no security of my job and no pension. If the secretary is out, there is no replacement system unlike for teachers.

Trade Union Fórsa is seeking to have all secretaries and caretakers who are paid through the ancillary grant to be paid by the Department. According to calculations by the Department, this would cost €21.868 million once all staff hit the top of the scale.

Next year, the union plans to ramp up efforts to raise awareness; Fórsa has a union leader in each county in Ireland now, and a leaflet campaign will begin in the New Year to help increase pressure to achieve job security and equal pay for secretaries.

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