Fighting for Covid safety in the DWP

Since the arrival of the Omicron Covid variant we have experience the horrific deja vu of the DWP response to the crisis. At every turn in the last two years the department has been behind the curve, only responding to the danger after the event. We have been witnessing the same with Omicron. This is no surprise of course when their masters in Parliament treat the safety of the public with disdain.

In Birmingham DWP PCS we have watched the rise of Omicron with growing alarm. Most of our offices have staff who have caught it, with at least one office having had to be closed and deep cleaned at least once a week for the last 4 weeks. Every Friday we meet our district management at a ‘district informal’ meeting. These meetings have been dominated by two items – Covid and the increasing micromanagement of staff and their diaries. We had hoped that when the DWP guidance said back of house staff should work from home that would at least mean we could reduce the number of staff in the office. Instead everyone in a job centre, regardless of their role, has been defined as front of house staff.

In my office concern has been growing about the risks of being in the office and the reps were discussing holding a car park meeting to discuss the situation with members.

On Monday 13th December we reached a tipping point.

DWP guidance had been that if a staff member received a positive covid test and had been in the office within 48 hours (it had previously been 72 but that had already been scaled back) the office would be closed, staff sent home, and a deep clean would be done. On Monday 13th new guidance came into force which insisted that there was no need to close the office, simply do a touch point clean where the staff member had been, and a deep clean would be done in the evening.

We were all shocked. At exactly the time when Omicron was getting a grip on society, we were having our safety measures scaled back.

With 2 hours notice we called a car park meeting. 27 members, a respectable number given the short notice, came and we had an angry discussion about the growing danger and our frustration with the department insisting that everyone remains in the office.

On the Wednesday one of our members tested positive and went home. The mood of frustration continued to grow as the policy of keeping the office open hit home.

This is of course not unique to my office or city. We were hearing reports of the same experiences across the country and we were by then receiving almost daily PCS members briefings reporting on the attempts to persuade the department to fall in line with the ‘work from home if you can’ message.

On Thursday the PCS DWP GEC called an all members meeting to discuss the situation. Over 1,200 members joined the meeting on Zoom or Facebook Live.

This in itself was inspiring, with my branch Whatsapp group buzzing with the reports of the growing numbers of participants. DWP President Martin Cavanagh talked us through the situation, reminded people of their rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, and raised the prospect of a ballot for strike action over safety.

In a poll of the meeting 90% said they would use Section 44 to protect themselves, and 94% of the meeting said they would be prepared to take industrial action.

Undoubtedly senior management knew about the meeting, the turnout, and the mood.

On Friday we heard that there was new guidance. Now work coaches need to call claimants and read them a script. While it continues to claim that our offices are safe, it gives claimants the option to hold their appointments over the phone. This is for a three week period. In Birmingham we were told that having identified how many claimants are planning to come in each day, we would be able to plan how many people are needed in the offices, and everyone else possible would be able to work from home.

This is a huge step forward for safety in our offices. No doubt there will be problems in areas as managers manage to mis-understand the guidance, and we will have to fight this wherever that happens. The department have still not rescinded the new cleaning instructions, and neither have they returned to the lockdown strategy of only seeing vulnerable claimants that the PCS has demanded.

But this is a huge improvement. One that comes about as a result of increasing activity in the offices, and pressure mounted by our Left Unity led GEC.

Whatever happens next with the virus and the fight for safety in our offices people will remember that 1,200 of us met to discuss our options, and the very next morning the department retreated. We need to shout that lesson from the rooftops. And we need to take this experience into every workplace. Whether it is over Covid safety, micromanagement, or the coming pay ballot, we need members to be involved. Car park meetings, Teams or Zoom meetings are all crucial to members feeling like they are part of the union, that they own the union.

The stakes are high. We living with a murderous virus and a government that puts profit before safety. We are experiencing a cost of living crisis which is putting the squeeze on us all.

We can win, but to do it we need to organise, organise, organise.

Pete Jackson