Overpaid maternity benefits in Region 9 grab centre stage at PAC

REO Clair Singh and several other Region 9 officials on Monday got a tongue lashing from members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) after the Auditor General’s 2010 report on their financial transactions revealed that they were not following financial regulations.

The barrage of criticism began as the committee commenced scrutiny of a discrepancy whereby in 2009, the region made overpayments totalling $1.216 million to 15 employees, 12 of whom were maternity cases. Ronald Harsawack, current Region 8 REO, was the REO of region at the time of the payment.

Singh, in an effort to explain what led to the overpayments, said that the women in question proceeded on leave by as much as 55 days before they submitted documents requesting maternity benefits.

In one case, the region had written to one woman whom it alleges was overpaid by one month ($56,608) while another, a letter stated, was overpaid by one month and thirteen days ($13,426). In addition to these women, letters were written to all of the women who were identified as being overpaid in maternity benefits.

Singh said that by the time the ladies would have submitted documents requesting maternity leave they would have already been paid for the time which they had not been on the job. People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) MP Bibi Shadick had difficulty digesting this explanation and asked Singh how long it took for the region to realise that this was happening.

PPP/C MP Manzoor Nadir, who smiled as if in disbelief at what he was hearing said, “I cannot understand how people can go on leave without the region’s knowledge.”

Nadir, a former Minister of Labour, said that if a person fails to show up for work for the period of time outlined in the Auditor General’s report, and does not indicate why or submit documents requesting the necessary leave, they are considered to have walked off the job. As such, he said, he did not understand why and how payments were made.

PPP/C MP Gail Teixeira, who was not pleased with what she was hearing stated that personnel procedures clearly state that persons absent for more than two consecutive days are expected to submit a medical.

Harsawack suggested that the problem lay in the lapse in communication between the regional office and the offices where the women worked. He said that in many instances, by the time the regional office became aware of the absences, the payments to the women had already been made.

Harsawack’s explanation was however, challenged by Shadick’s revelation that each of the villages and other populated areas in Region 9 were in possession of radios, which made communication not as difficult as Harsawack was suggesting.

Both Shadick and Teixeira were of the opinion that something was seriously wrong with the region’s accounting system. This sentiment was seemingly shared by A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) Volda Lawrence who said that despite several training sessions the region’s financial officials seemed not to understand the financial procedure which obtained.

The officials’ lack of understanding of their systems was made even more apparent after Auditor General Deodat Sharma pointed out that the Region was paying the full salaries of the women on maternity leave, as opposed to the 30%  which is required of them.

According to Sharma, the region is only supposed to pay 30% of the benefits while the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) is mandated to pay the remaining 70%. He said however, that the region was paying 100% of the benefits, and suggested that the employees might be of the impression that they were not overpaid since they had not received any benefits from the NIS.

As a matter of fact, this very scenario was stated by several women who wrote back to the region explaining why they thought they were not overpaid.

One woman said that she was not paid any benefits by the NIS although she had submitted her claims. As such, she said, she believes the full salary paid by the region covers what was to be paid by the NIS.

In addition to writing letters to the women asking them to repay the amounts that were overpaid, the region also wrote the office of the Finance Secretary recommending that 5% of the women’s salaries be deducted until they had completed repaying what was overpaid.

The suggestion did not find favour with the committee however, and was especially frowned upon by Finance Secretary Neermal Rekha, who said the officials were operating as though they did now know what to do.

A better suggestion, Nadir said, would be for the current REO herself to order the monthly deductions for the salaries of the overpaid persons who still worked with the region. However, Singh, when prompted, stated that she was unaware of her authority to do that.

Reserving his comments on the matter for last, Carl Greenidge, the committee’s Chairman, said, “I hope the team understands our dissatisfaction with this report.” Finally, he admonished Singh and her fellow officials to seek advice whenever again they are unsure of what must be done in any situation.

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