MS sufferer looks to CCMA to reverse Woolies suspension over ‘incapacity’

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Sandra Teodosio of Durban was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2013 and in 2017 suspended from her job at Woolworths and charged with incapacity, then fired after a disciplinary inquiry, reports the Sunday Times.

Teodosio of Durban
was a Woolworths food department manager. The report says now the 43-year-old is challenging Woolworths at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. She wants her job back and an order that the company discriminated against her. She claims the company has policies for employees suffering from illnesses but will not accommodate her condition.

Woolworths has disputed her claims, saying Teodosio was now unable to work flexible shifts as required from managers. A Woolworths spokesperson is quoted in the report as saying the company had “done everything reasonably possible to accommodate Teodosio as per Woolworths practices in these matters and legislative requirements. We have a proud history of affirming persons living with disabilities and breaking stereotypes.”

In a letter to Teodosio in February 2016, the retailer said that there were no suitable alternative positions it could offer her and that the “incapacity/ill health route” would be the best way forward. But Teodosio said that apart from a fainting spell at work last year, as well as the usual sick leave taken by most employees, the disease did not affect her work. “I can work and I want to work,” she said. “I just need set shift times so that I can be home by 7pm latest. I need to take strong medication for insomnia and I need as much sleep as possible,” she said in the report.

Teodosio, who joined Woolworths in 2006, said that her neurologist had declared her fit to work. She had been working as the food department manager at the branch in Bulwer Road, Durban, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition described as an “unpredictable, often disabling disease” of the central nervous system.

Symptoms vary from patient to patient. “Look at me,” Teodosio said. “I don’t look like a sick person. I don’t have a broken leg or arm. My disease is within me.” She said that in 2015 the company “reluctantly agreed” to remove her from call-out duties but it had dug in its heels regarding shift work. She offered to do the early shifts that ended before 6pm, but the company insisted she must work the later ones because all managers were required to do so.

Teodosio said the company transferred her from the Bulwer Road store to a larger one at Westwood Mall. This meant she needed to cover a larger area and, if the lifts in the building were not working, walk up several flights of stairs to get to work. All of this took its toll.

“All I want is to work a shift pattern that assists me to lead a healthy lifestyle with MS. The company accommodates people with epilepsy, diabetes, TB and HIV/Aids. But I have received very little support.”

The report says while she was working on the shop floor, Teodosio was handed a letter of suspension. She demanded a reason and was told it was performance related. At the hearing, she was told it was “incapacity”. “There seems to be a suggestion that I should have been medically boarded. But I strongly believe I am not eligible for this as my neurologist confirms in one of his reports that I do not qualify for temporary disability from a neurological perspective. Plus, I want to contribute to the company.

“As things stand I cannot apply for another job because my record states that I was dismissed.”

Her attorney, Chris Haralambous, said in the report that Teodosio’s case was unique – and important for multiple sclerosis sufferers in the workplace. “In late 2014, the Employment Equity Act was amended to expressly recognise ‘unlisted’ grounds of unfair discrimination, other than the usual ‘listed’ ones, such as gender, sexual orientation and race, et cetera.

“Apart from challenging her dismissal, my client alleges that she was unfairly discriminated against because of her condition and it is important for the CCMA and, if necessary, the Labour Court, to ultimately pronounce on this.”

The hearing has been set down for later this month. Woolworths is opposing both applications.

The report quotes director of Multiple Sclerosis South Africa in the Western Cape, Non Smit, as saying that between 5,000 and 10,000 people in South Africa had the condition. “But there could be many more who are undiagnosed because of financial and economic reasons,” Smit said.

“Workplace issues are huge challenges because of the invisibility of the disability and symptoms vary from person to person.

“We, as an association, believe it is within fair boundaries to ask for certain accommodations, and sufferers should not be in the firing line . . . the time might be right to test these issues in a court of law,” Smit said.

Sunday Times report (subscription needed)

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