The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been urged to further restrict the number of officials working in its London headquarters because of concerns about the impact of keeping the office open on support staff.
The Public and Commercial Services trade union yesterday announced that it was balloting support staff who work in the department on possible industrial action due to what it said were concerns over working conditions.
Around 100 support staff, who are outsourced to facilities management firm ISS, could stage a walk out next month.
The union said that although most civil servants are working from home, some officials are coming into the office, which means that support staff who work in security, cleaning, porterage and postal services at the 1 Victoria Street office are also required to work in the building.
PCS claimed that the contractor ISS was refusing to wind down support services to a level that would be Covid secure. As well as balloting staff, PCS called on BEIS to further restrict the numbers of people coming into Victoria Street than at present, and wind down the office operation further.
The ballot for action will open on 24 November and close on 8 December.
The ballot comes after civil service unions including PCS expressed concerns about social distancing in the department earlier this month. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "BEIS and ISS are continuing to put our members at unnecessary risk by not allowing support staff to stay at home.
"Most civil servants are working well from home and there should be no need for our support staff to continue to put themselves in harm's way at BEIS.
"We have already seen [business secretary] Alok Sharma court controversy with his trip abroad after one of his team contracted Covid. It is understandable that our contracted-out members have no faith in the minister or this government's handling of the corona pandemic."
Responding to the announcement, a BEIS spokesperson said it was untrue that ISS had refused to wind down support services.
They added: “Current numbers of ISS staff working in the BEIS head office are 40% compared to normal levels, allowing most ISS staff to be at home on full pay during this period.”
The department said it recognised the important role of ISS staff during the pandemic, and had agreed to a one-off payment for those who worked in its offices during the national lockdown between March and August.
It also said it was working with unions including PCS to ensure that the few offices open to BEIS staff complied with Covid secure guidelines, and that it was working with ISS to monitor staffing levels. Further reductions in staffing numbers may be made, if it is right to do so, in order to keep the essential services running and the building safe for those who cannot work from home.
In a statement, ISS said: "ISS is committed to the wellbeing of every employee, following all Covid-19 guidelines set by Public Health England and the government to ensure that our people are protected and safe. We are fully compliant with health and safety regulations and guidance. We continue to follow best practice to ensure our employees, customers and the workplaces in which we work continue to operate in the safest way possible."