Time for a hero – meet Greenwich’s answer to Erin Brockovich

How a member from Greenwich turned Erin Brockovich and won a payout for 5,000 colleagues against all the odds

In 2012, a school cleaner from Greenwich noticed an error in her pay, and despite being told by everyone she spoke to that she was mistaken, kept pushing for the problem to be fixed.

This week at a council meeting in Greenwich, Julie Stedman has been vindicated. The culmination of a six-year battle means that not only will she receive the extra pay she is owed, but around 5,000 low-paid, mostly female, workers across the borough will receive payouts worth millions, in a case that also has implications for councils across England.

It started in June 2012, when Julie was moved from a full-year to a term-time only contract, and she noticed something wasn’t right. Her July pay slip showed she was receiving less than she expected. “I spoke to my supervisors and said ‘this is not right’. They told me yes it was.”

She spoke to her colleagues, who didn’t believe that Julie could be right and their employers wrong. So, she considered the problem. She spread her payslips out across her living room floor and got out her pen and pencil to do the maths.

The error was related to how her holiday entitlement was calculated. Essentially, the Royal Borough of Greenwich was using an incorrect formula and had not worked out the correct annual leave allowance pro rata, which meant she was missing out on pay for several days per year. (For a more detailed breakdown of the calculation, scroll to the bottom of the page).

With her pay slips spread out in front of her, Julie worked out the problem. “I couldn’t get what was happening at first. And it took me quite a while to work it out, and then all of a sudden it clicked.”

Having told her employer GS Plus, and been ignored, many people would have given up. But not Julie. After going to GS Plus she went to Greenwich borough council, who own GS Plus. They also told her she was wrong.

She told her husband, who didn’t initially understand the error.

She rang the council and asked how much leave she should be owed, but they couldn’t tell her. She met with the head of wages at Greenwich and they told her the formula was right.

The first time she told the UNISON branch they didn’t think anything could be done either (UNISON has since learned to listen to Julie).

But she carried on. She went to ACAS, and the law centre. She even rang some private solicitors to see if they could help, but the fees were way too high.

“I was just determined not to give up because I knew, once I knew I was right”, Julie said. 

By this time, UNISON had realised how right Julie was. Her UNISON branch and region were working hard to support her, and UNISON began negotiating with the council, which has ultimate responsibility.

Fast forward to 2016 and the council were still insisting it was doing nothing wrong, so UNISON made a claim at an employment tribunal.

But it wasn’t just Julie who was affected. Around 5,000 term-time workers across Greenwich were also losing out.

In the Greenwich UNISON branch, Julie’s rep Clara Mason worked tirelessly to inform members who were being paid incorrectly and support them with all the paperwork so they could be involved in the legal case.

In the end, UNISON took a case on behalf of 476 of its members working for Greenwich.


Women in a class room

Some of the teaching assistants from Greenwich affected by the case

The case relied on EU law that prevents part-time workers from being discriminated against, which is what was happening because of Greenwich council’s miscalculation.

While the original miscalculation could have been an error, the council was made aware of it in 2012 and, UNISON argues, should have rectified it earlier.

At a meeting this Wednesday (31 October 2018) Greenwich councillors agreed to revise the formula used to calculate the allowance and pay the correct rate backdated to 1 January 2013.

This means around 5,000 people – mostly low-paid, and, according to the council, 94% women – will receive a payout of several hundreds of pounds each, hopefully just in time for Christmas.

And Julie’s impact could go even further.

UNISON believes this is an issue that affects members not just in Greenwich, but across the country. UNISON national officer Ben Thomas said that UNISON is pursuing legal action against a number of other employers believed to be treating term-time workers unfairly.

Ben said: “Term-time workers are entitled to a proportionate entitlement to all the pay and benefits that a full time worker receives, including annual leave, sickness leave and maternity pay.

“These issues can be complicated, but UNISON is working with local government employers to publish some joint advice later this year.

“We will also be producing negotiating advice and training for branches on ensuring that term time workers get fair treatment in all aspects of their employment,” he said.

Some of the Greenwich UNISON branch team


UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “No authority should think they are immune and safe from breaching the law. In this case, EU law meant UNISON was able to restore justice and ensure all part-time workers in the borough of Greenwich are paid the right rate for the job.”

As for Julie, she’s had double good news in recent weeks as she’s also just found out she’s going to be a grandmother for the third time. She isn’t sure how she’s going to spend her money yet, but said “I might celebrate with a few vodka Red Bulls.”

We think a couple of people in Greenwich might owe her a drink too.


The problem with the calculation

The problem is that Greenwich council had miscalculated how much holiday their workers on term-time only contracts are entitled to.

Term-time contracts are different to most other contracts when it comes to holiday, because term-time workers are required to take their leave when the school is closed. This means it isn’t always clear how much leave they receive or when they’re taking it.

It turns out that the problem was how the borough was calculating how much holiday they were owed.

To work out how much holiday pay term-time workers should be receiving, it needs to be compared to how much leave people on full year contracts are on.

The correct way to calculate how much leave term time workers are entitled to is to compare the number of weeks a term-time worker works, with the number of weeks a full year worker works, and give them a proportionate number of days’ annual leave.

For example, if someone on a full year contract gets six weeks holiday, then they work 46 weeks a year (52 weeks minus 6 weeks). So, if a term-time worker works 39 weeks per year, then to calculate their leave we need to divide 39 week by 46 week.

The result is 0.85, which when you convert it to a percent means that term-time workers should receive 85% of the leave entitlement that full time workers have. So, if a full time worker is entitled to 30 days leave (6 weeks), then term-time workers working the same hours should be entitled to 25.5 days leave (85% of a full-timer’s allowance).

The key thing to note here is the figure for how many weeks someone working in a school on a full year contract work for, which is 46. This is important because the mistake the council made was including full year workers’ leave in their calculation. They divided the number of weeks term-time workers work by 52, instead of 46.

Correct calculation

  1. Weeks term time workers work / weeks full time workers work

39 / 46 = 0.85

  1. Take the answer and times it by 100 to get a per cent


  1. Use that percentage to work out how much holiday entitlement term-time workers have compared to full time workers

85% of 30 days = 25.5 days leave

Incorrect calculation 

A common mistake employers make is to say that a full time worker works 52 weeks, and use that number to calculate the proportion of leave a term-time worker should get. 

  1. Weeks term-time workers work / weeks full time workers work PLUS how much holiday full time workers have

39/52 = 0.75

  1. Take the answer and times it by 100 to get a per cent


If you think you or someone in your UNISON branch is being paid incorrectly related to term-time contracts, please email the education team.