Jobcentre workers and Covid-19: Unsafe, unworkable, unacceptable

Submitted by AWL on 1 July, 2020 - 7:04 Author: John Moloney
Stop benefit sanctions

The Secretary of the State for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has announced that she wants job centres to open from 4 July, with mass opening to the public on Monday 6 July.

This is unsafe, and unworkable — there is no means to safely distance in an interview with a claimant in a small job centre, and no mitigations and additional safety measures have been installed, such as perspex screens or additional hand sanitising facilities.

The government also plans to introduce stricter conditionality on claims, meaning claimants will face more stringent checks on how much job searching they’re doing and face being sanctioned or having their benefits withdrawn entirely if they fail to meet the benchmark.

Millions more people are now jobless and will be claiming benefits, so the government is effectively asking millions of people to report to usually quite small and compact job centres at the same time, which is clearly dangerous from an infection control perspective. It also means there’ll be many new claimants who won’t know how bureaucratic, petty, and draconian the system is for people trying to claim benefits. The system is set up to punish people for failing to have found a job, rather than to support them in finding one. This could lead to a lot of irate claimants, who may then take that anger out on our members.

The union has made its opposition to all of this clear. If the government refuse to back down, we’ll have to advise members that we think they are in serious and imminent danger. We’ll be reminding members of their rights to refuse unsafe work, including under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act.

An online reps’ meeting planned for Monday 29 June assessed the situation and discussed practical strategies for organising to resist unsafe work.

The situation is very fast moving, but depending on how things develop we could move to a situation where reps organised safely-distanced meetings in car parks prior to work beginning to discuss how best to use those legal rights.

Government also wants driving instructors to return from 6 July, which is another sector where distancing is impossible. In both these cases, the announcements were political, made unilaterally by ministers to give the impression of the economy opening back up, rather than coming from the civil service as an employer as such. As far as we can tell, senior civil services bosses weren’t consulted, and there was no discussion within the collective bargaining machinery of the civil service.

We were also informed recently that the sector-wide agreement that outsourced workers will receive full occupational sick pay for periods of sickness and self-isolation will be withdrawn, with the decision on whether to pay full sick pay being devolved to individual departments.

This is clearly unacceptable, and shows the urgent need for the union’s recently launched “Dying for Sick Pay” campaign, which fights to win full occupational sick pay as standard for all outsourced workers across the civil service.

• John Moloney is assistant general secretary of PCS, writing here in a personal capacity

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