When the government launched its COVID-19 action plan, and again when DWP staff were marked as key workers, your GEC was straight into negotiations with DWP on policy provision to ensure protections for you and your families.
We have gained some real improvements for staff, the starting place for PCS being to ensure that policy is equitable and just, and that the employer pays due regard to work/life balance for all of our members. One of the most important ways of achieving that balance is for members to take time off on annual leave, which in the employer’s own words is the time to have "rest, leisure and social activity outside the home". Unfortunately, although that definition sits within the intranet COVID policy ‘HUB’, the employer appears to have rewritten the script when it comes to members on Special Leave With Pay (SLWP) for COVID-19 related issues.
The policy change and how it affects all staff - not just the most vulnerable
The latest updates to annual leave guidance separates staff into two groups, the ‘working group’ and those receiving ‘Special Leave With Pay’.
DWP refute that there are two groups although their revised guidance clearly sets those two groups of workers apart, and introduces a material change which potentially discriminates against staff with protected characteristics, but will also bring restrictions for our members in work, those that are staying in our offices, risking their health to deliver vital services to our communities.
Policy as it stands
Colleagues working: it has become clear that many members that are in work are not taking annual leave as they would normally do. Lockdown has meant cancelled flights, people unable to travel either abroad or across the country, so leave is being cancelled until it can be used for the right reasons as above, for rest, leisure and social activities. Staff in work can still apply to take time off and should apply for leave as and when required, but those that have communicated with PCS believe it would be a waste and they would rather wait until lockdown is over.
Policy states that members in work that do not use their leave will not lose it; annual leave can be accrued and when the coronavirus emergency is over, the normal carry-over limits will be relaxed for two years, so they will have until the end of their leave year following 31 March 2022 to take time off.
Colleagues on SLWP: for members on SLWP the policy is more restrictive and the normal annual leave policy applies, with little to no flexibility.
It is important to note that members on SLWP are either on the vulnerable list, so shielding to protect them from contracting COVID-19 which will cause them serious illness or worse, or they are caring for dependants; they are not off work because they choose to be, but for safeguarding reasons.
As it is for those in work, whilst in lockdown, those on SLWP are unable to leave the house, unable to go abroad or across the country, or to the park with family; those members on SLWP cannot make good use of their annual leave, due to exactly the same restrictions placed upon those in work.
Whilst those in the working group will be allowed to accrue their leave for better times, those on SLWP are being ‘encouraged’, or in the words of concerned colleagues that are contacting the GEC from work, are ‘being forced’, to book leave to sit at home, some in very small apartments with no outside space, suffering serious mental health issues as they are restricted from going out and/or visiting loved ones.
This is no holiday for the vulnerable, and carers; asking them to convert SLWP to annual leave is not appropriate.
If leave is not booked, those on SLWP may not be able to use their entitlement before the end of their leave year and so will lose that which cannot be carried over.
Further to this, those that have had holidays cancelled, or want to cancel leave as, but for COVID-19 regulations they would be in work, are finding themselves faced with a very hard line approach as managers are flat out refusing their request. For those in work, ‘needs of the business’ allows for leave to be cancelled, and again, accrued to use when lockdown is over.
DWP have not thought this through
What DWP have failed to address within this policy is, not only are they lining up cases for discrimination against our most vulnerable members, but they are creating future problems for our members in the ‘working’ group.
When those on SLWP return to work and have to use their leave within this leave year, it will place severe restrictions on the leave available to those that are currently working.
Members that will have stayed in the office for the duration, risking contracting COVID-19, and/or carrying the virus home to their loved ones, on applying for leave could well find there is none available due to those that have been on SLWP being forced to take leave having only just returned to work. The Department have given no indication that there will be any relaxation to the usual percentage restrictions. PCS fully anticipate that any staff that wish to take leave will be competing for a limited amount of allowable leave.
This dilemma will have been created as a direct result of this amended guidance and not through the fault of those members currently left with no option but to stay away from the workplace.
This is an ill thought out policy and PCS members, in both groups, deserve better.
Facilitating working from home
Members in the SLWP group do not want to be away from work they are, quite rightly, being told to stay at home to protect them from COVID-19 and as can be seen from DWP/MB/049/20 PCS has been making demands on the employer to provide equipment, such as laptops and mobile phones, to allow home working. By the time of writing, 2,000 Surface Pros and other kit will have been deployed to the homes of staff so that those shielding, or undertaking caring responsibilities can continue to work and release the pressure on those in the office.
PCS are demanding that staff currently in work are given the same technical provision to allow them to also work from home so they can continue to provide critical service to the public with greater safety.
That DWP are not doing more, or acting quickly enough is not the fault of our members and your GEC will not see you bearing the brunt of this pandemic, nor will we allow DWP to create a ‘them and us’ scenario between our members in work and those absent due to personal circumstances.
PCS demands that the employer return to talks
DWP initially issued a refusal to enter further discussion on annual leave until Cabinet Office guidance is available. PCS continued to press until the employer agreed to come back to the table: consultation will now take place on Tuesday next week.
PCS will be raising three principle points
- all members must be afforded the two year extension following the end of the leave year to allow both groups to make proper use of their annual leave when lockdown is over
- denying members that would be in work but for COVID-19 shielding or caring responsibilities the ability to carry over leave and take it within the two years following the end of the leave year, as is afforded to the ‘working’ group, certainly as the employer has failed to provide work for those members, is potential discrimination
- members that are in work due to ‘key worker’ status, those putting themselves and their families at risk as they provide vital service to the public, must be allowed time off as and when it is required, and at a time of their choosing
The annual leave policy at present is not fit for purpose and the GEC will continue to press for a policy that works for all.
A further briefing will be issued following Tuesday’s meeting, should you have any concerns, please contact your local rep, or email Group Office at: email@example.com.
Finally, we would urge all of our members to reflect on the importance of not allowing an ill thought through policy to drive a wedge between us. We do not have two groups of members, one working and one currently off work, we have one: we are a union, a united membership. It is the priority of your leadership to do all we can to protect all of you, whether currently working from an office or from home, or are having to self-isolate or shield from this killer virus. We continue to try to make sure none of you are disadvantaged during this pandemic, whilst ensuring your safety is our first priority.