UNISON wins clearer COVID-19 guidance for its disabled members

‘Huge gap in the guidance’ was allowing employers to insist that vulnerable people ignore shielding and go into work

Microscopic view of the Coronavirus

UNISON has successfully lobbied for the government’s COVID-19 guidance to acknowledge that many of the ‘extremely vulnerable’ people who have been instructed to shield at home during the pandemic are also workers – whose employers may not have been sympathetic.

Until the end of May, the guidance on shielding did not adequately take into account disabled people in employment.

UNISON national officer for disability equality Deirdre Costigan said: “From the beginning, we’ve had members on the list whose employers were demanding that they go to work – they were not allowed to work from home, there was no offer of furlough, no special paid leave.

“They had to be at work. This was a huge gap in the guidance.”

The oversight was typical of the sort of victimisation that “can’t see disabled people as workers,” she said. This time, it was putting people’s lives “seriously at risk”.

If they were allowed to remain at home, it was on statutory sick pay only, which was wholly unacceptable, she added.

UNISON voiced its concerns with the select committee on the impact of COVID-19 on people with protected characteristics, as well as in private meetings with the Treasury.

And the union believes that these efforts led to the inclusion of a new section in Public Health England’s revised guidance on shielding, issued on 1 June, which now makes employers’ responsibilities clear.

Addressing those who are shielding, the guidance states: “You should make every effort to work from home and your employer is expected to help you to do this.

“If you are unable to work from home, you should discuss and agree your options with your employer.”

These include alternative roles, adjusted working patterns or different types of paid leave, including furlough.

It also asserts that: “It is breaking the law to discriminate, directly or indirectly, against anyone because of a protected characteristic such as age, sex or disability.”

Ms Costigan said: “This has strengthened our negotiating hand when talking with employees, to make sure our members are both keeping safe and able to work.

“We can now point to the government guidance, which has the expectation that employers will help shielded people to work from home and, if they can’t, to consider special paid leave.”

As a consequence of the revised guidance, UNISON has now updated its bargaining advice to branches.