I am providing a report on the very disappointing outcomes that resulted from a teleconference with management this afternoon. I have set out below a summary of the response to the some of the points we raised.
We asked if all staff processing benefits were being classified as key workers/essential workers. Management stated that this was the case and that payment of benefits to the vulnerable is a ministerial and business priority.
We raised serious concerns that social distancing is not/cannot be applied. Management stated that they are continuing to work across all offices to ensure that they comply with social distancing. Some areas had introduced rota working to facilitate social distancing. Staff not on rota and not required for redeployment would be sent home. Other areas were working at minimum levels so social distancing was no longer a problem. In all other areas safe distancing is being applied. They stated all UC sites were fully compliant and other sites are complying due to fall off in staff numbers.
We said that some buildings not suitable for social distancing but what consideration can be given to rota working. Management said they have begun weekly rota working in the Pension Centre, PIP, DCS and Welfare Supplementary Payments. Given the significant staff absences across all of our benefit processing centres they are unable to apply a rota system as all available staff are working to maintain existing and new payments. The exception is Income Support where they are currently identifying minimum staff numbers and introducing a rota system with staff on-call when needed. With increased demand on Discretionary Support they are likely to need all of these staff over the next few days. Work & Health Group have reduced numbers and this has reduced the need for rota working.
Concerns that limiting lift access is causing issues in foyer of GNT as staff cannot social distance while waiting for a lift. Management said that CMS is implementing the guidance on 1 person per lift. Logistically this was proving challenging and they are encouraging people to use the stairs where it is feasible and safe for them to do so 2-metre intervals have been delineated by tape in the foyer to support people to queue responsibly. Whilst they are seeking to put additional measures in place, they are reliant on people exercising personal responsibility throughout this period.
We stated that there is no effective triage happening in JBOs. They said management in JBOs are currently making contingency plans and these will be announced later today. However this is being reviewed constantly.
We said many members believe they are in non-essential posts and are being told to remain at their desks until needed as opposed to giving their contact details and being available at home for redeployment as necessary. Management stated they were not aware of this issue. They said staff had provided contact numbers and for example non – essential staff who arrived into College Street this morning have been advised to go home. And that all Working Age staff have been assigned to the key priority areas of maintaining new and existing payments.
Staff with vulnerable children with health conditions are being told they have to come to work but some are very concerned about their children’s safety in school settings due to their health conditions. Management stated that there is clear NICS HR & PHA guidance which should be followed allowing for special leave in such circumstances.
This is an unacceptable response to the serious issues affecting members. I would therefore ask all branch secretaries to immediately provide a report on the situation within their areas. Please indicate if members have been sent home, placed on a rota are remain in work. Have social distancing measures been put in place? Please provide photos if they have not. Are staff being redeployed? Have concerns been raised with local management?
I would urge you to get this information to me as soon as possible. I will be writing to the Permanent Secretary and the Minister to set out our concerns regarding the decisions being reached and that liability for any transfer of this virus within the workplace will fall personally to those managers that knowing force staff to work in areas that are not essential or do not have appropriate social distancing measures in place.
It is critical that we continue to raise concerns with local management in writing so that there is a record of the risks you are being placed under. Please also ensure that any response from management is provided in writing. NIPSA had requested that all services be closed for 48 hours to allow necessary action plans to be developed, minimum staffing numbers to be identified and accommodation changes to be made in offices to provide for social distancing. This offer has been refused.
We must now take all measures to protect staff and the starting point is a risk assessment of the processes management have put in place. We need this urgently, hopefully before the end of today so that we can then advise members of what other steps need to be taken to protect their health, safety and welfare in their workplaces.
I look forward to your urgent response.