You may be aware that the General Secretary and myself met yesterday with Deirdre Hargey, Minister for Communities and Declan Kearney, Junior Minister for The Executive Office as well as members of the DfC Senior management team.

We had sought this meeting as a result of the shocking pictures we issued as a press release on Tuesday showing working conditions in Ballymena UC Support Centre and I know these scenes were replicated elsewhere.

I wanted to give you a short report of the meeting as we raised a number of issues with the Minister and she gave us a number of commitments that were welcome. The Minister opened the meeting by acknowledging the commitment of NIPSA members in delivering essential frontline services across the public sector and confirmed she was aware of many of the issues affecting members in DfC.

Agency Workers

We raised the shocking treatment of Agency workers by Premiere People who were ignoring the commitments given by Ministers and continuing to tell our agency members that they would not get the benefits secured by NIPSA and be treated in the same way as permanent staff. The Minister agreed with our position and stated the NICS and Ministers were taking all possible steps to ensure agency workers would receive their proper salary.

We also raised that the NI Executive should also consider staff in G4S, Noonan and Aramark who may lose their jobs as a result of DfC offices closing due to Covid-19 mitigation measures. The Minister agreed to raise this with Executive colleagues.

Social Distancing

We recorded again our shock at decisions not to enforce social distancing in DfC offices earlier in the week. We also acknowledged that over the previous 36 hours, things had improved considerably but it was critical that the 2-metre rule in offices continued to be enforced and NIPSA needed assurances these standards would not slip over the coming months.

The Minister acknowledged that what had happened was unacceptable and committed to ensure that standards re social distancing would not slip going forward and she would work with senior management and NIPSA to achieve this.

Cleaning

While we acknowledged the challenge of ensuring workplaces were properly cleaned, our members would not work in an unsafe working environment. We sought assurances that measures would be put in place across the department that included increased cleaning, especially around hot-desking due to rotas and redeployment.

The Minister agreed that this was critical and confirmed management's commitment to take all necessary steps to ensure safe workplaces.

We also referred to the Health & Safety Executive NI advice on regular risk assessments and asked that weekly risk assessments for all DfC buildings should be carried out. These should be shared with local TUS to address any problems but could also be shared with DfC senior management as an assurance mechanism to ensure all necessary actions were being taken in all offices. The Minister agreed that her management would consider this request.

Mental WellBeing

We all accepted that this emergency situation was likely to last some months and as such, NIPSA was concerned that staff in work would experience burnout if they continued to be placed under the severe stress they have suffered in the last 2 weeks.

Senior and middle managers were working significant daily hours, 7 days per week while benefit staff were receiving many thousands more claims that usual and were not seeing any means of addressing backlogs.

The Minister agreed that staff in work must be protected and hoped that the introduction of rotas would allow staff some time away from the workplace to recover. We also stated that we needed to look at how annual leave would be dealt with because members needed time off but we were already getting information of staff either cancelling their Easter leave voluntarily or being asked to by managers. The Minister committed that her management would work with NIPSA on putting plans in place to protect staff going forward.

Special Leave

We acknowledged that there was guidance for special leave for vulnerable staff and if staff had childcare issues but no guidance if a staff member had a vulnerable adult living with them. I highlighted a number of cases that I had dealt with recently as examples of where members needed a sympathetic employer to help then with a family crisis. We also raised concerns regarding the current limits being placed on special leave. The Minister agreed that it was important to support staff and while policy on special leave was a NICS HR matter, committed that her management would support staff where possible. Redeployment

The Minister stated that there was a requirement to look at redeploying staff where possible to assist with essential work, such as Discretionary Support. This would assist the public but also reduce the pressure on staff in those areas. We agreed that redeployment may assist but stated guidance was needed to ensure redeployment was properly implemented such as training and travelling to new sites. It was agreed that management would engage further with NIPSA .

Communications

While we appreciated that the current crisis is fast changing, there was a need to look at improving communications and support for managers to ensure a consistent approach on decision-making but also with local trade union sides and staff.

The Minister committed to this and offered to teleconference with NIPSA each week to discuss our members' concerns. We welcomed this offer and agreed to engage with her more regularly.

In conclusion, the meeting was positive and it provided us an opportunity to bring forward our concerns. We agreed to work with management on implementing the best arrangements for members but we would take steps to protect members if we considered they were in unsafe workplaces.

I will of course keep you informed of any further engagement with the Minister going forward.

Dooley Harte
Assistant Secretary