Jobcentre safety dispute
PCS still in dispute with DWP
It has been made very clear to us from the volumes of correspondence and the regular reports from PCS representatives that members working in jobcentres are feeling even more at risk than they did at the time of the ballot. Members are telling us that they think the mass return to work is both reckless and unnecessary, when there is still so much harm Covid can do, with many people still either not vaccinated or only having had the first injection. PCS members understand that, despite the fantastic efforts of the NHS to get everyone vaccinated, people are still at risk from symptoms of the virus and the impact of Long Covid.
Members cannot understand why, when they have been able to deliver an excellent service from home for so long, the DWP cannot agree to allowing them to continue doing so when the virus still has the potential to do so much damage to society.
What are we asking for?
PCS is seeking agreement on the following demands, which have been put to DWP and have formed the basis of our negotiations:
- The withdrawal of the notice to significantly extend face-to-face services
- Only face-to-face interviews with those identified as the most vulnerable until the vaccine programme is complete and low rates of infection have been sustained for a significant period
- The easements put in place during the pandemic, which have allowed members to focus on paying benefits to those who need them, continue with no escalation in labour market activity
- Adhering to full work coach empowerment, where they decide how to progress their caseload
- A full equality analysis to be carried out on both the extended services and any significant return of staff to offices
- A commitment that the use of video calling will be voluntary for staff and customers, with no expectation placed on staff or customers.
- All work coaches to have completed the mandatory keeping safe training, stages one and two, before being asked to deliver face-to-face services.
Dispute resolution talks
At the time of writing, PCS has had two meetings with members of the executive team. At both we explained that members feel even less safe about face-to-face working now than they did at the time of the ballot as a result of the rapid rise in infections due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
It was clear after last September’s consultative ballot about members’ safety how important the key concession gained from DWP was, that work coaches were empowered to see claimants in the way that they thought most appropriate, which was to include by telephone or digital channels. It gave work coaches the chance to engage with their customers without having to return to the workplace.
However, the DWP has now reneged on this agreement and chosen to interpret work coach empowerment as only being about how long customers are seen for, support for vulnerable customers, whether they can consider good cause in relation to potential sanctions, and flexibility of support for customers. The preferred channel for work coaches to engage with claimants no longer forms part of what the DWP mean by empowerment.
Limited progress has been made on some of the demands, however on the key issue of allowing work coaches to determine whether to see customers face-to-face or use another channel to engage with them, the department remains adamant that, despite the success members have had using telephone and digital to engage with customers, it is the government’s position that claimants must be seen in jobcentres and that they have no option but to make members see claimants this way.
Whether or not it is the department’s decision or the government’s, PCS maintains that DWP still has a duty of care to keep its employees safe and that their current position of forcing so many jobcentre staff back to work in the midst of another dangerous wave of the pandemic puts members at unnecessary and avoidable risk.
Talks to continue
While the DWP has not gone nearly far enough in settling this dispute, PCS is still committed to continuing negotiations with the department. In particular, the DWP has agreed to “actively look for opportunities for multi-channel delivery of services, where appropriate, and for opportunities within policy.” PCS will explore whether the DWP has any genuine commitment to reducing the numbers of face-to-face interactions with claimants and attempt to find an acceptable resolution that will keep members safe. This will have to be based on a robust risk assessment process that does not reduce the department’s existing safeguards around the ability to socially distance and have screens in jobcentres.