Whilst there has been some consultation over the last couple of weeks PCS believes that the department are acting with undue haste and with little regard to the safety of our jobcentre staff and the claimants we serve. A big bang approach on the 12 April will put mean unnecessary risk.
We believe that it is a flawed political decision for the secretary of state to demand that jobcentres must be ramp up the number of staff and claimants attending if the high street is open.
PCS does not believe our offices are covid safe as claimed by the department. The prime minister has stated that lockdown should be eased cautiously. The governments for the three nations continue to emphasise that everyone should work from home where they can.
PCS believes DWP should not be rushing to get people back into the jobcentres unnecessarily while we are still in the middle of a pandemic. This puts staff, claimants and our communities at unnecessary risk of spreading the virus when DWP staff have proved that they can provide very effective support to the public remotely throughout the pandemic.
Members who are in the office should be those that want to be there because they cannot work from home for whatever reason.
Before any changes are introduced into the jobcentres, including additional staff being brought into the workplace and the extension of face-to-face interviews, the site risk assessment must be reviewed jointly with the PCS health and safety reps. Every member has a right to see any risk assessment that affects them. This is especially important if you do not feel that your office has put in place the appropriate safety measures. Your local reps will report on how well the discussions on the risk assessment have gone.
As part of the risk assessment process the safe capacity of sites should be discussed taking all the safety measures into account and the maximum number of customers allowed in the office at any one time should be agreed with the PCS safety reps. The Covid safe maximum occupancy level must not be exceeded. Account should also be taken of all staff, guards, cleaners and claimants. It must not be based solely on counting the seats or screens.
PCS has pushed DWP throughout the pandemic to ensure that it properly addresses all the covid-19 risks in workplaces.
It was clear from research into outbreaks of covid cases early on in the pandemic that covid-19 was spread through airborne transmission as well as touchpoints. The unions raised this danger in talks with DWP management. Despite this not being taken on board by the department, we continued to press on the issue alongside other unions and the government was eventually forced to acknowledge the risks.
All government guidance since late last year has refers to the need for good ventilation to reduce the risks of spreading the virus.
Safety measures in DWP workplaces must now take into account the risk of airborne transmission of covid-19. Covid-19 particles are released into the air every time a person with the virus breathes out or speaks and fill up the indoor space similarly to how cigarette smoke might fill a room. Bringing in fresh air continually throughout the day is essential to reduce the risk. All the site risk assessments, including the use of PACE, rooms must include measures to ensure good ventilation.
Social distancing measures
The ending of the lockdown does not mean the end of social distancing. The government’s latest poster states "wash hands, wear face coverings, be 2 metres apart and get fresh air" which means all these measures continue to be essential. People need to stay at least 2 metres away from everyone else in all directions at all times. Limits on the desks which can be used, the layout and movement of staff and claimants around the jobcentre need to be factored in keeping everyone at least 2m apart. This should include one way systems and it must be clear to everyone how the safe route ways work.
If more than one floor is being considered for use this increases the issues in how stairs and lifts can be used safely and comply with social distancing and be kept secure. Safe systems must be in place to ensure social distancing is maintained.
There needs to be sufficient room in kitchens and break out areas for all the staff to have tea breaks and lunch breaks away from the public and all keep at least 2m apart from each other. There needs to be sufficient toilets for all staff in the site taking into account many of the toilet areas can only accommodate one person at a time safely to comply with social distancing rules. Safe capacity levels of these areas should be clearly indicated on signs.
All of these limitations will also impact on the safe Covid maximum number that can be accommodated in the jobcentre.
Any rare exceptions for points in the workplace where it is impossible to maintain 2m distancing need to be reviewed in the light of the risks of airborne transmission. There must be no instances of this being less than 1.5 metres between people and further measures must be put in place to mitigate the risk. Screens only protect against the large virus droplets and do not protect everyone from airborne particles which require good ventilation to disperse. Face coverings are an additional protection for everyone and not a substitute for all the other essential safety measures.
Lateral flow testing
The department are keen for as many people as possible to volunteer to have regular lateral flow tests. This will either be by setting up a test centre in your office or by being given tests to carry out at home. There is a risk assessment process for these test centres to ensure that it does not increase the risks to staff in spreading Covid-19 through the workplace. If it is more convenient for members to get the quick tests closer to home, then they can do so. This reduces the risks of transmitting the virus when travelling into the workplace and being in the workplace. You must self-isolate if you get a positive test result however a negative test result does not mean you do not have covid-19 as it could be a false negative. Therefore, it is important that if you get a negative test result that you continue to wash hands, wear a mask whilst walking around the office and to keep to 2m social distancing.
If you or anyone in your household has covid-19 symptoms phone in, stay home and self-isolate.
Hot-desking/ desk sharing
While social distances measures are in place there should be no hot-desking. This is where multiple people use the same desk throughout the week. However, during a week 2 people can share a desk if they have their own keyboard and mouse which can be locked away when they aren’t in the office. The cleaner will need to know when the desk will need a thorough clean in between users. The reason for installing screens on so many desks was to allow staff to have their own workstation. Desks cannot be used if any other desks within 2 metres are in use.
People with underlying health conditions and disabilities
Although the rules regarding shielding have been relaxed in England and Wales from 1 April, it does not mean that the risk for those with underlying health conditions or disabilities has disappeared. It is important that the fears of those working from home get taken into account and they could have a reasonable adjustment to work from home while the risk is still so high. This is balanced by the members who are keen to work out of a workplace and where it is beneficial for their circumstances and well-being to do so. Members should express their concerns at their 1-2-1 meetings and use the grievance procedures if you need to. Your local PCS reps can support you in this.
Some health conditions require increased use of the toilet facilities. This can impact on the ability to maintain social distancing so it might be necessary to allow some people to continue to work from home. PCS are opposed to the blanket approach from management of trying to get everyone, regardless of the individual risks, back into working in the jobcentre. Treating everyone fairly necessitates taking individual circumstances into account. It will be a long while before everyone can even fit back into the workplaces so it is perfectly possible to staff jobcentres with volunteers rather than putting pressure on members who are most at risk of life threatening consequences if they contract Covid-19.
When people return to the office if they feel at risk because there are not robust Covid-19 measures in place they can complete an accident form for a near-miss. However, if they do catch Covid-19 in the workplace or because they are being forced to attend on unsafe public transport then they should complete the part that states they have become ill due to work. (If they have gone home then their line manager can complete it for them). It’s important that the branch safety reps are included so they can investigate. They will check the covid-19 safety measures to see if they are fit for purpose. They also need to collate to see if there is an issue in a specific work place to enable them to liaise with local management and escalate appropriately.
The accident form is called SOARS under the Sodexo contract and also has a section for if you are suffering stress at work
Stress risk assessment
If you are feeling stressed at work or work is causing you stress you should complete a stress self-assessment. Your rep can help you with this. The next step in the DWP stress policy is to work with your line manager to carry out a stress reduction plan. This should be monitored and reviewed as part of the process. If you don’t feel able to deal with your manager re this another should be provided.
Legal advice will be issued separately for members who do not feel safe as a result of the return to work.