Council workers pawning belongings to make ends meet, says UNISON

Some council staff struggling on low wages are resorting to taking their possessions to pawnbrokers, says a UNISON report published today (Thursday).

Others have to borrow from friends or family, or access state benefits to make ends meet, according to the findings based on a survey of 21,000 local government workers.

The research highlights the devastating personal impact of austerity on the lives of staff including refuse collectors, youth workers and social workers employed across all services, according to UNISON.

More than a third (36%) of those surveyed used credit cards to cope financially. More than one in five (22%) had borrowed money from people they know, while nearly one in ten (8%) accessed state support such as housing benefits, universal or tax credits. The number forced to pawn possessions was six per cent.

Others had remortgaged, downsized or moved to a cheaper property (5%), had to apply for payday loans (4%), or used a food bank (2%).

The findings from the survey are even more shocking given most are at times working for free, says UNISON. Three in five (60%) said they do extra unpaid overtime, and 11% said they work more than 7 hours every week – essentially a whole extra day – unpaid.

This culture of unpaid overtime can be linked to staff shortages, says UNISON. Nearly two thirds (63%) of survey respondents identified a lack of front-line staff as the top priority for councils, and fewer than one in four described (24%) their workload as manageable.

UNISON says it is not surprising that more than two in five (43%) are thinking about leaving their job for a better paid role.

UNISON head of local government Jon Richards said: “The pay deal unions negotiated earlier this year is a start. But the government must begin to take seriously the fact that years of wage freezes have left hardworking council workers struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s shocking that so many people in jobs are still struggling financially and living in poverty.

“The severe council budget cuts have not only had a harsh impact on services. They have also affected the dedicated staff doing their utmost to provide decent support to local residents.

“Council workers are clearly scared about not being able to provide for their families. This situation is neither sustainable nor acceptable.”

A report released earlier this year by the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed councils across England needed an extra £5.5bn by 2020 to stop cutbacks to services.

UNISON is calling on the government to redirect money used in its other spending plans to local government to try and rectify some of the damage caused over the last few years.

Notes to editors:
– The full survey findings are available here.
– Earlier this year, local government unions negotiated and agreed on a two-year pay deal for more than one million council workers. The package – a 2% pay rise a year for two years – means a boost of more than 15% for the lowest-paid.

-Quotes from workers who took part in the UNISON survey:

Care worker, Norfolk: “When my tax credits and child benefits run out, I don’t know how I am going to support myself and two teenagers… We can’t believe that my wages don’t cover my outgoings.” 

Environmental services worker, North East said: “Our staff numbers have reduced to the point that we cannot cope with the workload and cracks are now becoming apparent.

“Safety has been compromised and staff are at breaking point. One has recently put in their notice because they just can’t take any more. They have no job to go to, but want to leave anyway to save their sanity. This person will not be replaced and their workload will be added to everyone else’s.”