As the coronavirus epidemic rages on, workers across sectors who cannot work amid the lockdown eagerly await to see if their employer will take up the government’s job retention scheme, where the state covers 80 per cent of people’s wages and employers pledge to not lay off their workers.
Also known as furloughing, it gives workers much needed peace of mind at a time of desperate crisis amid the UK-wide lockdown. While some employers have done the right thing and voluntarily furloughed their staff, others have to be made to. Unions like Unite have also placed additional pressure on employers to top up furloughed workers’ wages to 100 per cent so that they don’t lose out amid the crisis.
Unite this week celebrated two key victories after securing furlough agreements for its members.
EDF workers furloughed on 100 per cent pay
In one win, Unite successfully negotiated that nearly 500 EDF Energy workers will be furloughed on 100 per cent pay during the coronavirus pandemic.
The agreement covers meter installers, meter fixers and revenue collection workers employed by the energy giant in London, as well as in the south east and south west regions.
The agreement will embrace 498 workers, who are being furloughed, out of a total workforce of 1,193.
“The agreement reached with EDF Energy will protect the pay and jobs of our members during the current coronavirus crisis,” said Unite regional officer Onay Kasab.
“What we have achieved is the fundamental and central role of a trade union – defending workers’ interests in the workplace, through thick and thin, and especially so when times are particularly hard.
“This is the time when a union’s values, strength and resilience are truly tested and our reps at EDF have met that challenge 100 per cent,” he added.
“This agreement was hammered out because this is a Unite organised work force. Nothing is ever guaranteed – but what this does show, yet again, is that you stand a fighting chance if you are a member of a trade union.”
The rest of the non-furloughed staff remains on full pay and will be either voluntary emergency staff, who are on call, or employees who have volunteered to take part in community schemes – for example, delivering prescriptions and medication to the sick and elderly.
Transport for Greater Manchester win
Meanwhile, Over 100 transport workers employed by Transport for Greater Manchester (TFGM) have been furloughed on full pay thanks to the collective strength of belonging to a trade union.
From this week, workers employed in the commercial activities of TFGM including workers in shops, cafes and some bus station staff, will be furloughed on 100 per cent of their salary. An agreement has also been reached to ensure that workers with underlying health problems employed by TFGM will also be furloughed on full pay.
Under the job retention scheme, workers will receive 80 per cent of their wages from the government up to a maximum of £2,500 per month. The agreement with TFGM means the company will meet the cost of the additional 20 per cent for around 100 workers to bring them up to 100 per cent of pay.
“Over 100 staff have been furloughed on full pay thanks to the collective strength of the unions,” said Unite regional officer Tanya Sweeney. “The unions have reached an excellent agreement for workers employed in the commercial arm of TFGM.
“Staff are being furloughed on full pay for 3 weeks initially but we have a guarantee that if the period is extended the workforce will continue to receive their full pay. Additionally, the unions have reached an agreement to ensure all workers with underlying health problems at TFGM will also be furloughed on full pay.”
Furlough scheme sick pay discrepancy
Unite is not only negotiating furlough agreements in individual workplaces – it’s also lobbying the government to improve the whole furlough scheme altogether.
On Tuesday (April 28) Unite urged the government to resolve a major discrepancy within the governments job retention scheme which could prevent thousands of workers from being furloughed.
Unite has identified that the Direction under the Coronavirus Act which created the job retention scheme and the HMRC’s guidance on who is eligible differ with regards to workers receiving Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).
The HMRC Guidance clearly says that workers who were placed on SSP can be furloughed, however the Treasury Direction under the Act says that workers receiving sick pay are not eligible to be furloughed.
The difference between the Direction and the Guidance potentially affects workers who are suffering from COVID-19, are self isolating or are shielding because they, or a member of their household, has been instructed to due to a medical condition.
Unite has written to the chancellor Rishi Sunak setting out its concerns on the matter, in the form of a pre-action legal letter stating that if the matter is not quickly resolved then the Union will have to take legal action on behalf of its members who are affected by this anomaly.
Commenting, Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett said, “It is vital that the confusion over who is entitled to enter the job retention scheme is quickly resolved.
“The HMRC guidance is mostly straightforward and fair. The problem is that it seems not to be supported by the Treasury Direction,” he added.
“Thousands of our most vulnerable members who have coronavirus type symptoms or are shielding are confused.
“The government has the ability to clarify this matter and ensure that all affected workers are fairly furloughed,” Beckett went on to say.
“Unite is hopeful that this is an error which can be easily remedied but Unite will take steps to protect our most vulnerable members if action from the government is not matching its words.”