I’m fit to work, ex-Woolies man­ager tells CCMA

Sunday Times - - Front Page - By TA­NIA BROUGHTON

● When San­dra Teo­dosio of Dur­ban was di­ag­nosed with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis in 2013, it was the low­est point of her life.

But it was about to get worse for the Wool­worths food depart­ment man­ager.

In June last year she was sus­pended from a job she was “pas­sion­ate about”.

Charged with in­ca­pac­ity, she was fired af­ter a dis­ci­plinary in­quiry in July.

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 spokesman said 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,” the spokesman said.

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 told the Sun­day Times.

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.”

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 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 di­rec­tor of Mul­ti­ple Scle­ro­sis South Africa in the West­ern Cape, Non Smit, said 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.

Pic­ture: Jackie Clausen

San­dra Teo­dosio says she was un­fairly dis­missed by Wool­worths be­cause of her mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, a con­di­tion af­fect­ing the ner­vous sys­tem.

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