DWP staff balloted over Covid safety fears

Union asks jobcentre workers for views on strike action as face-to-face interviews increase
Credit: PA

By Jim Dunton

05 May 2021

The civil service’s biggest union is asking members who work at jobcentres for their feelings on coronavirus safety measures following the widespread resumption of face-to-face interviews with benefit claimants.

PCS said its consultative ballot, which opens today, would gauge sentiment among Department for Work and Pensions officials and assess the potential for strike action.

Last month the union accused ministers of being reckless for reverting to normal opening hours at jobcentres and expanding the number of face-to-face interviews with claimants after a year of services being successfully delivered remotely.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said at the time that the anger of members was “palpable” and warned that strike action could not be ruled out.

The union is calling on DWP to stop the extension of face-to-face services until the vaccine programme is complete and low rates of infection have been sustained for a “significant period”. It says only claimants identified as the most vulnerable should be dealt with in-person.

PCS said it was also asking DWP to honour an agreement made in autumn last year that entitled work coaches to decide for themselves how to progress their workload, including making decisions about how to interview customers.

The union said its ballot was being run electronically and would remain open until Friday 21 May. As it is only a consultation, a further vote of members would need to take place for any strike action to be legitimate.

When PCS raised its concerns about the expansion of face-to-face interviews last month, DWP said health and safety measures at all of its sites were kept under constant review and reports of positive cases of Covid-19 on site were immediately escalated to protect staff.

It said protection measures included rigorous cleaning regimes, strict social distancing and the rolling out of lateral flow testing for colleagues at larger sites.

“Throughout this pandemic jobcentres have remained open to ensure we can continue to provide vital support to the most vulnerable. Our return to full opening hours will enable us to provide even more help and support to those who need us,” a spokesperson said.

“We take the health and safety of colleagues extremely seriously, and are absolutely committed to ensuring all our sites remain Covid secure in line with Public Health England and government guidance to keep colleagues and customers safe.”

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