UNISON branch treasurer’s determination wins fair pay for college staff

‘At first it was gut instinct,’ says Julie Robinson, who challenged an error in how term-time staff at West Midlands sixth form college were being paid

A library assistant and UNISON branch treasurer has won another victory in the union’s battle to ensure that term-time members in education are being paid their due.

Julie Robinson discovered that the term-time staff at Solihull Sixth Form College were not receiving payment in respect of public holidays they were entitled to.

Those affected included admin staff, careers advisors, science and art technicians and, like herself, Learning Resource Centre staff.

The payments concern those bank holidays and other concessionary days that fall outside of the school or college term. In contrast to Ms Robinson and her colleagues, teachers and full-time workers were receiving these payments.

“At first it was just gut instinct,” Ms Robinson said. “I had a feeling that it was wrong, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what the framework was.”

This was in Easter 2017. Then she noticed that a UNISON sixth form and FE college seminar, in Leicester, included a workshop on term-time working, and signed up.

“I thought I’m going to go for that one and take all the ammunition with me, and I will find out something. And I did. It seemed that a lot of employers had adjusted their term-time workers’ salaries. Ours had not. That’s where it started.

“When we found out we had been underpaid, and by how much, I suppose it was a shock,” she adds. “I feel disappointed I suppose, especially since you sort of think everything is being done properly in the public sector.”

At the seminar, national officer Ben Thomas spoke about the Part-time workers (prevention of less favourable treatment) regulation 2000, introduced to protect term-time workers.

With his advice and the help of West Midlands regional officer Kate McLeod, Ms Robinson put the case to management in a regular Joint Staff Group meeting. Its first response was to reject the claim, on the basis that the college was acting in accordance with a national policy agreed by the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

Ms Robinson persisted, tabling the claim again for the very next meeting, where a newly appointed principal was more sympathetic. He received clarification from the association and granted the claim.

The result was that the 14 UNISON members involved have received an additional eight days pay a year, along with six years’ back pay.

“We are just really pleased that it’s been addressed and put right,” said Ms Robinson. “We’re now getting paid for eight days that we didn’t have before. It will make a big difference to a lot of us.

“Being paid properly allows you to make new decisions about what you can spend, what you can save. And it increases your pension.”

At the same time, she admitted, “I think for some it’s bitter sweet. Because they know the change in the law happened in 2000 and some people have been here since then.

“But six years’ back pay is the legal precedent, so that’s what we asked for. But for a lot of people, myself included, it’s just a fraction of what we have been underpaid all these years.”

The Solihull victory comes hot on the heels of the successful, six-year battle to win fair pay for thousands of low-paid, mostly female school workers across Greenwich, in south London. That dispute was over an error in how holiday entitlement was being calculated for term-time workers.

Said Ben Thomas: “This case shows again how important it is that members should check their payslip and not just trust that their employer is paying them correctly.

“This is particularly the case for term-time workers and anyone on an annualised hours contract.”

He added that while staff had the right to access all the leave and benefits that full-time workers receive, it wasn’t always made clear to staff how – or even if – the employer was ensuring that.

“Julie has been very persistent in challenging her employer and has used the resources of the union to achieve a significant victory for her members,” he said.

“UNISON is committed to fighting for fair pay for part-time workers and I would encourage any part-time worker who thinks they are being incorrectly paid to speak to their branch.”