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Stib workers speak out over absenteeism and illness policies

21:38 14/03/2023

Brussels public transport operator Stib is being sued by one of its employees, who claims the company did not make necessary adjustments to his working hours for medical reasons.

Other employees have also criticised the policy, Bruzz reports, claiming that Stib discriminates against workers who want to stay on half-time or request adapted hours due to ill health.

The case itself centres around a bus driver who was allegedly threatened with dismissal when he refused to return to work full-time because he said his health condition did not allow for it.

The bus driver said that the current system pressures employees to work full-time before they are medically ready to do so, resulting in safety risks for both staff and passengers.

“The anti-discrimination law provides that an employer must adjust the working arrangements if an employee can no longer do a full-time job due to medical reasons. But Stib has not done so in this case,” said lawyer Leïla Lahssaini of the firm Progress Lawyers Network.

Just a few hours before the lawyer spoke out to the press, Stib announced that it would extend the employee’s part-time status after all.

Stib said that it regretted the matter, but defended its policy: “We allow an extension of a medical half-time, but after one year, we do ask for new medical certificates from the treating doctors to be submitted in order to proceed with the extension,” spokeswoman An Van hamme said.

“Long-term extension of a half-time working regime is also possible for a series of serious illnesses.”

Several other employees also denounced Stib's policy on sick leave. They said that the public transport operators maps short-term absenteeism with a list of employees who must spontaneously present themselves to their manager as soon as they call in sick three times.

During those interviews with a manager, the employees say they faced pressure to return to work in the normal work regime, even if the health condition would not allow it at that time.

The arrangement, according to anonymous witnesses, affects the health of drivers and hence the safety of users.

In the case of the bus driver who sued, he suffered a herniated disc that led to an incapacity to work for several months in 2014, then a relapse at the beginning of 2021, following which his doctor authorised him to return to work part-time at a rate of 20 hours per week from 1 February. The measure was subsequently confirmed on several occasions.

But when he recently consulted his timetable, the applicant noticed that the Stib had decided to end his medical part-time work as of 31 March.

While the decision has now been reversed, his lawyer decided to go public regardless, because other colleagues – who wished to remain anonymous – were facing similar situations and wanted to raise awareness of the issue overall, which they say is hardly limited to just this one instance.

Stib confirmed that it does keep a track of frequent absenteeism, but only in the interest of its employees.

“Frequent absenteeism can indicate a personal problem facing an employee or it can be due to the work situation,” said Van Hamme.

“It’s logical to ask an employee what is going on. We can then take preventive action if necessary, because if someone drops out for a long time, colleagues have to take over and then the workload increases.”

Dismissal is a last resort measure, according to Stib. Van Hamme said that only eight cases have been settled in court in the last 15 years in a company with 10,000 employees.

Written by Helen Lyons