On Monday 27 April, after an emergency sitting of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, NIPSA were informed that the Council had taken a decision to dismiss over 70 staff, citing financial pressures caused by the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic. This shocking announcement was made all the more severe with the inexplicable decision to give the impacted staff and their representatives a 48-hour period of ‘consultation’.
The council stated that with public venue closures impacting revenue, they were facing an unprecedented financial challenge. They proposed four money saving measures:
- All planned recruitment of posts would be suspended;
- The Council would withdraw from all secondment arrangements;
- The Council would release 27 Agency Workers who were not working in essential services;
- The Council would dismiss 46 staff on permanent contracts, with a service of under one year who were not working in essential services.
The Council imposed a two-day consultation period requesting a formal response by Wednesday 29 at 5pm.
NIPSA immediately questioned if the Council had explored the Government funded furlough scheme which had been applied for in other Councils and if a furlough agreement could be arranged with the employment agency for agency workers. ANBC explained that they had been informed that their chances of receiving the funding were low and therefore had not made efforts to apply for the scheme. NIPSA also enquired as to why the 46 contracted staff had not been afforded the minimum 30 day notice period required by law. The Council responded with their own interpretation of the law, stating that the consultation period only applied to 20-90 staff in the same workplace/building. These employees were from various areas of the Council.
NIPSA are deeply concerned and disappointed by the arbitrary and controversial decision taken by Councillors in Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council to seek to dismiss these staff at such a complicated time for workers and families.
The decision to take these steps appears significantly more draconian as compared to the course taken in other councils in similar financial situations as a result of COVID-19.
It would appear that Antrim and Newtownabbey are cynically seizing on an opportunity to make cuts under the guise of the Coronavirus pandemic and not giving due consideration to the other options available to them. The Council are not giving due regard to the position they will be placing these workers in nor taking account of the service rendered to the Council by these staff who they now target in order to cut their workforce” said Natalie Shiel, NIPSA Official for the area.
Other comparable councils have sought, quite rightly, to use for example the government furlough payment scheme where services are diminished and there is a defined and examined need to change the shape of the workforce.
The decision to dismiss Agency Workers and short term staff specifically targets employees who are left more vulnerable because of potentially lesser protections under employment law. This is a strategy to dismiss staff who by-and-large will have diminished ability to oppose the decision, and which in its nature targets workers who will have accrued the least protections.
This decision will also have a significant impact on the staff who remain with the Council. Such a knee-jerk decision to dismiss staff will cause considerable anxiety for remaining staff. Although the true impact of this decision may not become apparent until normal working practices and routines resume, this will most likely have an impact on the provision of services in the Antrim and Newtownabbey area and will serve to the detriment of the hard-working staff who may remain.
The Council have proposed an unacceptable consultation period with affected staff to just two days instead of the legally required 30 days. The Council may have made its own interpretation of the law in order to allow them to dismiss staff as quickly as possible, as opposed to entering into meaningful discussions in good faith.
In the days to follow, NIPSA actively campaigned against the proposal by lobbying Councillors, raising the issue publicly to the press and putting pressure on the Council to explore other financial options. NIPSA submitted a formal rejection of the proposal before 5pm on Wednesday evening.
On Thursday 30 April, the Council released a statement to staff that they would postpone the dismissal of 46 contracted staff while they explored the possibility of funding from the Government Job Retention Scheme and had reached a furlough agreement for 27 Agency Workers.
This is a welcome positive step for the workers at risk in this issue. However, NIPSA are disappointed that the Council did not explore these financing options before making a proposal to take such drastic measures and dispose of staff.
NIPSA will use the next two weeks to continue to oppose the decision and plan to meet with the Minister for the Department of Communities to explore what is available for the Council at this time.