Nurses, paramedics, delivery drivers, supermarket and bus workers – these are only some of the key workers who have rightly been lauded as heroes amid the coronavirus crisis. But there are many others amid the pandemic who have not had the recognition they deserve as they continue going to work and risking their lives to help others.
Unite rep Margaret* works at a bank branch and she and her colleagues play an absolutely vital role at a time when the vast majority of businesses are shut during the lockdown.
“We’re here to look after our vulnerable customers – those who live on the breadline who are waiting for money to come into their account,” she said. “Others are elderly and need help with their banking, or maybe someone has a daughter down the road and needs to get money into her account. Others don’t have enough money in their accounts and need to come into the branch to put money in to pay their bills. We know our vulnerable customers personally and just as before the epidemic we feel we have a duty to look after them especially at this time of crisis.”
But Margaret and her colleagues feel angry and let down by their employer as they expose themselves to a deadly pandemic without any leadership from upper management. While the branches are open for limited hours, staff haven’t been given the guidelines they need to keep themselves safe.
“We’re only supposed to take on absolutely essential work – but this is left to our own discretion and neither branch workers nor our customers have been given any guidelines as to what constitutes essential. When we turn a customer down for what we see as obviously non-essential requests – for example someone who might come in with a £10 cheque with no expiry on it – and they complain, then we get it in the neck from the bosses.”
Margaret says that because of this lack of clarity, customers who may not know any better come to the bank when they don’t need to – the queues she says have only gotten longer and longer each day – and so increase bank workers’ risk of exposure. This risk is especially heightened when handling bank notes and coins, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said can transmit the virus.
“I’ve taken up this issue with upper management time and again but they simply won’t listen – they’re working from home and they’re making all these decisions from the safety of their own home. None of them have said okay I’ll actually come in and spend a couple of hours in the branch to understand the reality of what you’re facing.
“Now with Boris Johnson saying we’ve reached the peak of the virus, even more customers have come in. Just this morning before we even opened we had more than ten people queueing. People have even brought chairs to queue up.”
Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) has also been a major issue for her and her colleagues, Margaret notes.
“We have screens now but those only came in last week,” she said. “Gloves also came in three weeks after they were supposed to. I’ve had to personally source and bring in gloves for my colleagues – the bank says they’ll reimburse us but that’s not the point.”
Anxiety among staff at the branch where Margaret works is now running extremely high, and it’s only being exacerbated as the government signals an ease of the lockdown as early as next week, which many critics have said is premature.
“After Sunday’s announcement from Boris Johnson, I suspect the bank will immediately start extending our opening hours,” she said. “People will think – okay we’re back to normal and it’s all over. Sunday’s announcement absolutely petrifies all of us at the branch because whatever the prime minister says, people will hear what they want to hear. Already customers are demanding that we open the tills we’ve had to close to maintain social distancing. They’re asking why we can’t let people in more than two at a time.”
Despite the extreme stress that Margaret and her colleagues are all now under, she said what motivates them is not only their duty to their customers in need but also their loyalty to each other.
“There is a sense among our team – and we have a brilliant team – that we are in this together,” she said. “I would do anything for my team and they would do anything for me.”
Margaret urges other bank branch workers who are working through the crisis to stand together with each other and to be brave and vocal.
“If you feel it’s not the right thing to do for your personal safety, then don’t do it,” she said.
“I’ve been very outspoken throughout the crisis and have been told twice already by bosses that after all this is over, that you don’t want be remembered by management for the wrong things. My answer to them is this – if by ‘wrong things’ you mean caring for my colleagues, then yes, I do want to be remembered for those things.”
Unite national officer Dominic Hook hailed the work that Margaret and other bank branches workers are now doing – and called for action from the banks to protect their safety.
“Members working in bank branches have continued to go to work and provide essential services to their communities and it’s time they were recognised for this important work,” he said. “Some banks need to work much harder to get the message across to the public about whether their visit to a branch is essential and provide clear guidance in the branch.”
*Name changed to protect privacy
By Hajera Blagg