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Teaching through the pain

The impossibility of early retirement in Kosovo is forcing over 200 teachers with serious illnesses to continue working in schools, with consequences for the teachers themselves, the children they teach and for the Kosovo education system

Prishtinë, 26 January 2020

Albanian language and literature teacher Emin Pajaziti encountered his first major problem when he had to teach verb conjugations. Pajaziti cannot stand on his feet because he suffers from a disease affecting his nervous system making it impossible for him to write even the name of the subject on the blackboard, let alone the numerous conjugations of Albanian verbs.

His difficulties prompted one of his students to stand up and write it for him. For Pajaziti, who teaches at the Vellezerit Frasheri (Frasheri brothers) Elementary School in the village of Cubrel near Skenderaj, this has now become a routine every day that he teaches.

Pajaziti, 60, has spent 27 years working as a teacher. He tells BIRN that in recent years his illness has become a nightmare for him. In 2014 he began limping, and in early 2016 his left leg became completely paralyzed. Although his crutches can be seen placed on his desk, he cannot walk on his own, and needs support from a companion every time he tries to move.

Pajaziti says that his health is having a major impact on his performance as a teacher, but because he needs to make a living, he is forced to keep working.

Under Kosovo law, Pajaziti must either continue teaching or leave his profession and receive a disability support pension which would provide him with 90 euros per month – so long as the Medical Commission at the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, MLSW, considers that he is fully disabled, or, in other words, that he is unfit for work. There is no legal infrastructure in Kosovo that regulates early retirement for teachers due to serious illness.

According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, MEST, there are around 23,000 teachers working in Kosovo. However, neither the MEST, the United Syndicate of Education, Science and Culture, SBASHK, nor the Municipal Directorates of Education have ever provided data on the number of teachers living with serious health problems.

Following an investigation conducted by BIRN, it was discovered that at least 216 teachers working in elementary and secondary level education throughout Kosovo are facing difficulties similar to Pajaziti, forced to continue teaching with debilitating illnesses.

Chart showing the number of teachers suffering from serious illnesses. Illustration. Besnik Boletini.

BIRN submitted requests to all of Kosovo’s municipalities in order to provide this data. The municipality with the largest number of teachers diagnosed with serious illness is Prishtina, BIRN discovered, with 58 teachers suffering from serious health issues. The Municipality of Ferizaj has 16 cases, Prizren has 15, while Gjilan has 14. According to the data gathered, the length of time these teachers work while seriously ill varies from one to seven years.

Pajaziti says that his situation is becoming increasingly difficult. He explains that his spouse helps him to get dressed, his son escorts him to school in the morning and home in the afternoon, while the director and his other colleagues help him to move from one class to another.

“I would not survive without the support of the other staff. I am lucky enough to be in this school with them, otherwise I would be living under the social assistance scheme,” says Pajaziti, adding that he is tired of this routine, and that working under these conditions is becoming too difficult for him.

Emin Pajaziti, Albanian language and literature teacher. Photo: Besnik Boletini.

“Believe me, I wouldn’t be working, but my living conditions are tenuous. I feel like I have to apologize to the staff, the director, and the students because of my situation,” says Pajaziti, who feels his illness stops him from being as effective as a teacher as he was before he fell ill. “Nowadays, I cannot write even a single sentence properly. I find it very difficult. I do not appreciate this work. I don’t appreciate this subject anymore,” he says.

For Florim Rrustemi, the school’s director, the situation is putting him in a difficult spot when deciding how to proceed. He can see the difficulties Pajaziti is going through, but also has concerns about the quality of teaching he is able to provide. “He isn’t able to teach properly, and the students can’t learn properly from him,” says Rrustemi.

Rrustemi says he has notified Skenderaj’s Municipal Department of Education and the Ministry of Education about Pajaziti’s problems, but was told that there is no law that would grant him early retirement.

Who is ‘fit to work?’

According to the Law on Pension Schemes Financed by the State, a disability pension of 90 euros per month may be granted to people who have been fully incapacitated due to injury at work or occupational illness. However, an employee is entitled to a disability pension only after being assessed as completely unfit to work. A medical commission determines the nature and permanence of the person’s disability and conclude whether or not they are “medically capable of employment.”

Bahri Xhaferi, the head of the Pension Department at the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, says there is currently no specific categorization of what kind of disabilities would grant teachers the right to receive a disability pension, explaining that it will be incorporated into a future draft law related to disability pension schemes.

The Law on Safety and Health at Work requires teachers undergo health checks in order to ensure the timely detection of illness and disease, obliging their employers to ensure regular medical examinations at least once every three years.

However, according to Luan Nagavci, the director of the Institute of Occupational Medicine, teachers have never been provided these health checks. “So far, no employees in the Kosovo education system have come to the institute to assess their health or their fitness to work.”

Teachers’ right to take sick leave is regulated by the Law on Labor. An employee is entitled to 20 days of sick leave, during which they will continue to receive 100 per cent of their salary. Sick leave is available for another 70 days per year, but teachers will only receive 70 per cent of their monthly salary during this period.

After this, teachers with serious health problems have two options: continue working or quit their job, taking a disability pension provided they are considered 100 per cent unfit for work.

Mirvete Gashi has been teaching Economics, Entrepreneurship and Project Management for the last 20 years. Gashi has multiple sclerosis, or MS, which means she needs to use a wheelchair. She was diagnosed with the disease in 2010, but in the last two years particularly her condition has worsened, requiring constant assistance at both home and school.

Mirvete Gashi has been teaching Economics, Entrepreneurship and Project Management for the last 20 years. Photo: Besnik Boletini.

“I travel every day, my workplace is about five or six kilometers away from home. My husband accompanies me to class and helps me get to my desk,” Gashi says. “Once lessons end, he picks me up.”

Gashi found that teaching was becoming increasingly more difficult and began to think about retirement. However, as time went on, she made peace with herself and says the students were considerate of her situation.

The economics teacher says her subjects are mostly theoretical and discussion-based, so there is no need to write on the board or use equipment, and she only teaches in one classroom, so does not have to move around too much.

While Gashi is satisfied with the assistance given to her by the school, which allows her to keep working, she acknowledges that there are still challenges. “My husband works in the private sector working with lots of different clients, and sometimes he needs to put his own work to one side to make sure I can keep my job,” she says.

The job is important to her because she wants to remain as active as possible, but with three children to feed, working is also essential.

MS is a disease that worsens progressively over the years, and the 49-year-old is worried that it will make working more difficult in the future. Early retirement would be very welcome, she says. “It would be great to have this issue regulated by law. Otherwise, with the current disability pension support, I would rather work.”

Early retirement: an equitable solution

Rrahman Jashari, the head of SBASHK, says that his union have been requesting permission from MEST to collect data on the number of teachers working that are suffering from long term illnesses since 2014. According to him, it is essential that these teachers have a legal solution to their predicament.

“The ministry were very keen on the idea [of collecting data], and even said they have their own ideas to help teachers with illnesses, yet nothing has been done,” says Jashari.

According to Jashari, it is possible for these teachers to be provided with 75 per cent of their monthly salary while they are incapable of working, with the remaining 25 per cent allocated to hiring interns to assist at the school in their stead. “It does not look good allowing seriously ill people to continue working in bad health conditions,” he adds.

Jashari points out that teachers have come to him to explain the history of their illness and the struggles they encounter. According to him, many have expressed their disappointment with state institutions, which they expected to find a solution. “The only solution is to have this regulated by law and allow them to leave their teaching positions,” he says.

Kosovo’s Ombudsperson Institution, OI, has demanded legal regulation of this issue, too. In a written response to BIRN, the OI explains that this matter could be resolved by amending the Law on Labor with a provision for early retirement.

If the law were to be amended, teachers unable to work because of their health would be offered early retirement and receive 70 per cent of their monthly salary, around 409 euros per month (the basic monthly wage of an elementary school teacher is 585 euros). If we multiply this by the current number of teachers with serious health problems, 216, their early retirement would cost 88,344 euros per month to be paid from the state’s budget, around one million euros per year.

Officials from the Ministry of Education say they are committed to resolving these cases. The information office at the ministry tells BIRN that former Minister of Education, Shyqiri Bytyqi, asked the relevant ministries to address the issue during his time in office, but they were unsuccessful in approving the budget that would allow early retirement to be taken.

Regional problem?

For other countries in the region, there is no specific directive for teachers that regulates early retirement. However, often in cases of serious illness, a decision can be taken allowing teachers’ early retirement. Across the board, the disability pensions in other Balkan states is higher than in Kosovo, while citizens are also able to access health insurance that can assist them financially to cope with their illness.

Albania’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport tells BIRN that there is no special provision for retirement for teachers with serious illnesses in Albania. However, sick leave is payable for up to six months, and early retirement on the basis of disability is available after this six month period.

Xhoana Koxhaj from the Albanian Institute of Social Insurance says that the amount of money that can be provided through a disability pension varies from case to case depending on the number of years the person in question was employed, as well as their contribution to their pension scheme. According to Koxhaj, a teacher receives around 123 euros per month on average when receiving a disability pension.

Rrok Gjolaj, an adviser to the Ministry of Education in Montenegro, tells BIRN that early retirement can be approved for teachers in the country following approval by a medical committee. Teachers retiring early in Montenegro are provided with around 130 euros a month, 35 per cent of their monthly salary.

Safet Neziri, an education policy adviser at the Ministry of Education in North Macedonia, says that regardless of the medical assessments made, the assessment body tends to approve decisions on early retirement. “There were some occasions when we were advised that a teacher should not work more than ten hours per week. For more serious health issues, an early disability retirement is usually the recommended decision,” explains Neziri.

According to the Pension and Disability Insurance Fund of North Macedonia, the average disability pension is around 213 euros. This means that the disability pension for an elementary school teacher would equate to 60 per cent of their monthly salary, which is 352 euros.

Amet Dauti, an adviser for the Pension and Disability Insurance Fund in North Macedonia, tells BIRN that the calculation for how much teachers can receive after early retirement is based on work experience and the level of the employee’s salary. “Depending on the seriousness of the disability, their length of employment and the value of their pension, the applicant for disability pension can be entitled to an additional 10 to 20 per cent of their salary when the calculation of their pension is made,” says Dauti.

Children’s development at risk

For Halim Hyseni, an education expert and member of the board at Kosovo Education Center, KEC, the lack of legal infrastructure puts teachers in a difficult position, as they have to continue working as a matter of survival. According to him, in this condition, teachers lack the ability to follow the school curriculum as rigorously as required.

When this occurs, those who are affected the most are students, says Hyseni, explaining that this period of education is critical to a child’s development.

“The overall progress of children’s development can be interrupted, in terms of physical, mental, emotional, social and moral development,” he says. “The consequences can be irreparable.” Hyseni also notes that a teacher is responsible for 25 students per class on average, which could lead to negative effects in the development of thousands of children.

BIRN visited the school of Fadil Curri, an Albanian language and literature teacher at the Ilaz Thaci School in the Municipality of Hani Elezit. Curri believes that his performance as a teacher is not at a high enough standard, and that this affects his students, pointing out that he often has to interrupt classes due to his deteriorating health. “It’s interesting, I always enter the classroom ready to go, but my health condition can change instantly,” he says.

Curri is 60 and suffers from diabetes, but recently he has also faced problems with his feet and eyes that has required him to undergo surgery. Although he has worked passionately as a teacher for the last 20 years, he says in the last two years his desire to keep teaching has diminished, and he is considering leaving his job.

Fadil Curri, an Albanian language and literature teacher. Photo: Besnik Boletini.

“Occasionally, the situation gets worse for me. This can happen in the classroom, on the stairs or elsewhere on the school grounds. It really worries me when I feel incapable of teaching. I feel like I am useless,” says Curri, adding that it puts his colleagues in a difficult position as they also do not know how to help in this situation.

“There are moments when I feel like I am not myself, I lose myself,” he explains. “Once, because I wasn’t feeling well, I ended up going to another classroom instead of going back to my own.”

According to Nazim Laci, the director of the school, situations like Curri’s can be difficult for teachers and students alike. “Fadil sometimes is absent because of his diagnosis, and I have to assign other teachers to look after his class instead of him,” says Laci, explaining that it is difficult to find replacement teachers when he is ill.

Many schools find themselves stuck in these situations, and education departments are struggling to cope without any feasible legal solution in place.

In light of the high number of teachers living and working with serious health conditions in Prishtina, the municipality’s education department has planned to amend its directive, in order to support people that require early retirement. Those eligible for assistance will be teachers over 60 years of age, who can continue to receive 70 per cent of their salary until the age of 65.

Shpresa Shala, the director of the education department for the Municipality of Prishtina, says they receive frequent requests from teachers who face serious health problems to find a solution, but that they have also faced difficulties.

“There are teachers who would have voluntarily quit their jobs already, but their illnesses cost a lot of money to treat and without salaries they are unable to cover the costs of treatment,” Shala says.

According to her, in these cases, hiring extra teachers has been almost impossible. To try and tackle this issue, Shala’s department concluded a memorandum of cooperation with the Faculty of Education at the University of Prishtina, whose students can work and assist teachers who are ill.

For the time being, teachers like Gashi, Curri and Pajaziti will have to make the choice to either keep working despite the difficulties they face, or quit their jobs.

Pajaziti hopes that the government will soon provide him, and other teachers like him, with an early, dignified retirement so that they can focus on their health. “I would have already accepted whatever solution they take, so that someone who can actually provide for the students will replace me. I can’t do this anymore,” he concludes.

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Besnik Boletini and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or BIRN and AJK.”