UNISON nationally and regionally is working hard to ensure that the union is supporting members to the best of its ability during the coronavirus crisis. These are extraordinary and unprecedented times – and we are acting accordingly.
Amongst the union’s key aims has been to negotiate around the impact of the pandemic on members at work.
“Giving advice and support to our members during this time of crisis has been of paramount importance to our bargaining teams,” said Christina McAnea, assistant general secretary responsible for bargaining, negotiations and equalities.
“We are well aware that the majority of UNISON members will be continuing to provide vital public services at this time. In health, social care, police and ambulance services, but also through keeping schools open, ensuring energy, water and transport services continue to run and through keeping a whole range of other essential services going that keep our communities safe and well – refuse collectors, staff in the food standards and environment agencies and, of course, cleaning staff across all sectors, to name just a few.”
To support them, UNISON staff involved in national negotiations across the UK and across all of the union’s sectors have been seeking agreements and guidance on the impact of COVID-19.
The union has sought clear guidance on key issues such as:
- pay during closures, sickness absence, self-isolation or caring for dependants;
- access to personal protective equipment (PPE); and
- other critical health & safety issues.
Even where agreements and joint guidance have gone out, the changing advice from governments across the UK and the issues coming through from sectors and workplaces has meant we are having to continually update information to members.
The UNISON website has information on the agreements and guidance reached in all our main sectors. In addition, information on the coronavirus section on the website is being updated daily – including information on health & safety, employment and legal advice, key workers and school closures.
We have also set up a central log for issues and queries being raised through regions. A team of staff monitor these daily, either answering them or directing people to the appropriate part of the union. We will also turn some of these into FAQs.
Added Ms McAnea: “Even where national agreements or guidance are in place, we know that practices will vary across workplaces or agreements may not be implemented. If members are unsure or need advice, please check on the UNISON website – if you think your employer is not acting in accordance with a national agreement or guidance, please let your branch or region know. We can give advice and support.”
Here is just some of the other work currently being undertaken.
- NJC and SJC joint guidance and UNISON advice on working from home, pay during self-isolation and sickness absence, PPE and other health & safety issues
- Ongoing monitoring of issues across local government services.
- In daily contact with the UK education departments and local government employers’ bodies such as the LGA/COSLA/WLGA and others, such as academies
- Ensuring school issues are clear in jointly agreed local government employer/union circulars. Working with employers on specific advice following the decision to shut schools, including the implications for staff
- Involved in discussions on continuing to deliver education services to children of key workers and vulnerable children, and some schools remaining open over Easter.
- Working towards a national joint workforce agreement in HE
- Monitoring HE sectors so as to target resources and work with regions to protect members
- Produced a negotiating checklist for branches in HE
- Signposting sector advice from both Universities UK (UUK) and UCEA, the national HE employers’ association
- Working jointly with the Association of Colleges (AOC) in England and will support any measures it takes that are in the best interests of staff
- The AoC has requested extra funding from the secretary of state and this has been shared with regional leads to send to local colleges.
- Joint guidance across the four countries and specific UNISON advice on pay, sickness absence, health & safety and PPE
- Worked to broker an agreement on how plans to open the nursing register to third-year nursing students will be managed. The key priority has been to protect students and ensure this is a voluntary initiative. The next phase will involve negotiating around employment status, pay, and scope of practice
- Seeking to put on hold any restructuring or organisational change issues
- Seeking extension of all agreements to outsourced staff working in the NHS.
Police & Justice
- UNISON is being consulted on all issues affecting police staff through the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) stakeholder group, and the bronze group which has recently been set up to manage all COVID-19 related issues
- The union is also being consulted by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation service on exceptional delivery models in England and Wales and a package of staffing measures to cope with the crisis in the probation service.
This is a major sector for us and one where there will continue to be issues regarding pay and conditions and health & safety. Additional resources have gone into dealing with this. Ongoing work includes:
- Publication of new UK-wide guidance specific to social care members, signposting advice and addressing frequently asked questions. This guidance will be updated as the situation changes. Social care members will be asked to report on issues in their sector, so that trends can be identified and advice updated. We have set up a central reporting point for this and all issues and queries should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sector specific advice and examples of agreements have been circulated to regional social care leads.
- A letter has been sent to the secretary of state for health and social care, calling for UNISON to be more closely involved in planning and local bodies coordinating the response in social care
- UNISON is on the department for health & social care group dealing with issues related to the social care workforce
- We are raising issues about the lack of coordination in the sector with government, providers and commissioners and continue to push for care workers to have full access to PPE and health & safety risk assessments.
- Primary focus has been on effective engagement with employers and providing support to members to deal with their key concerns
- Agreements reached with all the main energy employers, but with some difficulties with temp agencies
- Key issues include ensuring no detriment during sickness absence and self-isolation, arrangements for exceptional working, additional payments and home working.
- Engagement within the agency on potential impacts of COVID-19 commenced around two weeks ago. The internal system facilitates employees putting forward questions, so that FAQs can be constantly updated with relevant information
- Issues have centred around the ineffectiveness of some systems related to remote working.
- Primary focus has been on effective engagement with employers and providing support to members to deal with key identified concerns
- Regional Officers have a close relationship with most of the key employers.
Most of the negotiating relationships within the sector are held by regions, which are providing support for branches and members.
In engaging with employers, regional leads are focused on securing:
- Agreement to payment of sick pay for people required to self-isolate;
- No adverse employment consequences for people absent through being ill or required not to work because of coronavirus
- Agreement to extend paid special leave if workers have to stay home as a result of coronavirus and government/council decisions.
These priorities are being taken forward with the employers where the negotiating relationship is held by National Office. Model guidance has been produced.
All sections of UNISON Scotland are active at the moment.
- Health Partnership working in the NHS means there is consultation with every Scottish health board – and in a number of these the employee director is a UNISON rep, so we are able to convey members’ concerns directly to decisions makers. A combination of this and direct meetings with the Scottish Government has allowed a number of issues around staffing to be clarified. All of this work is ongoing
- Local government UNISON Is represented on The Scottish Joint Council (SJC) which determines terms and conditions. This has been meeting daily and has allowed us to successfully insist on, for example, self isolation not being counted towards councils’ sickness absence procedures
- Police We have staff reps present at the daily ‘gold command’ Police Scotland meetings
- Utilities We have worked with the energy companies to promote home working – and for those ‘mission critical’ staff who have to go into work, to try and minimise risks through staggered shift handovers and such like.
UNISON Scotland has also been part of the Scottish TUC’s efforts to get the Scottish Government to prioritise testing of frontline and emergency staff.
The regions have been informed that it is “business as usual” – work locations may have changed, but members will still be represented. Regions have been divided into four groups, with designated reporting officers to collate all information received.
Specific advice has been produced on coronavirus related to:
- Impact on disabled workers
- Mental health issues
- Pregnant women at work.
- The Communications team is continuing to work off site, producing various UNISON publications. And the press team is continuing to convey the union’s views and concerns to politicians, press and the public
- An advice note has been issued to regions and staff on communications and media responses to the crisis
- Lead officers are communicating with chair/vice chair of national committees on a weekly basis
- FAQs are being updated around the clock on the union’s website, signposting members to further information
- Updates on what UNISON is doing have been sent to all members and activists
- Advertisements were placed on social media and in the press, publicly acknowledging the work of our members and thanking them on behalf of the public.
Recruitment, Organising & Learning
There continues to be a significant growth in recruitment to the union as public service workers worry about the impact of the current crisis on their jobs, terms and conditions and, of course, their health.
Work is taking place through the Strategic Organising Unit on how to ensure that this membership growth is maintained once the current health crisis ends. As face-to-face organising has all but ceased for the time being, this work includes the trial of digital methods of organising that can be used once the initial emergency diminishes.
Similarly, as face-to-face training courses for activists and members have all been postponed (and March through to June is always the heaviest period for courses) contingencies are being put in place by Learning and Organising Services (LAOS) to ensure that once the crisis is over stewards are trained at the earliest opportunity.
And LAOS is currently extending its online courses, making them more widely available across sectors. These will be provided for free.
- UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis wrote to the secretary of state for work and pensions about the inadequacies of the statutory sick pay (SSP) scheme
- The general secretary also wrote to the minister of state for the care sector about issues social care workers are facing with COVID-19
- Support has been given to TUC campaigns for improved SSP and a work subsidy scheme to keep people in jobs – which the Chancellor announced on 20 March
- A UNISON briefing was sent to all MPs and peers on the emergency powers Coronavirus Bill.