Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Workers Snowed In And Frozen Out

Here's an article I've just written for 'Solidarity':

The heavy snowfall at the beginning of February prevented many people from attending work. While a few employers did the decent thing and paid them anyway, many workers have found themselves losing pay or leave.

The small minority included Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust and Croydon Council, which not only paid staff who could not attend, but gave staff who did make it to work an extra day’s leave entitlement to thank them! Union reps in other workplaces should demand that their employers do the same.

Some other employers allowed staff to work from home, or at locations other than their normal workplace that were easier to get to, or allowed workers to go home early.

These, however, were the exceptions. Solidarity has heard from many workers whose bosses will deduct either pay or leave for the days of absence - and even an NHS employer which refused to grant carer's leave for staff whose children were unable to attend school, in breach of its own policy!

Some schools have tried to dock pay, claiming that the kids got in OK, failing to take into account that teaching and other staff often live further away, and that some could not even get out of their streets. We have also received reports of hospitals and local authorities cancelling services to clients, but still penalising the workers who were unable to attend work to deliver the cancelled services!

One NHS worker told us, "Everyone is angry about it - especially as management didn’t bother to show until the thaw."

Greenwich Primary Care Trust told its staff that they should take the snow days as days owing or annual leave. One worker explained that, "The managers are pushing for the day owing and asking people to work an extra shift (or two, if they could not get in on Tuesday) in the next month. Our ward manager is arguing that a) our country is in crisis so we need to do our bit b) our failing PFI needs our support because it has got itself into huge debt. We should make it clear who should pay for the crisis and what we do about PFIs. The most shocking thing at our trust was that the support staff (cleaners, porters, domestics), all employed by ISS, were not offered taxis or beds, and most people I've spoken to had long walks home. I'm going to take it up with the union."

Trade unions should raise this issue as a matter of urgency, demanding that no-one be penalised for being physically unable to attend work. The TUC issued a statement arguing that "workers should not have to foot the bill for bad weather conditions", but was at pains to point out to employers that if they behaved like "Scrooge bosses", it would add to their "business woes" by demoralising staff!

London Underground workers were particularly annoyed to face loss of pay or leave, when the reason that many of them could not get to work was that their own employer – Transport for London (TfL) – had cancelled all the buses!

Within a few days, nearly 50 workers had put their names to a collective grievance organised by RMT, and company Directors had to discuss it with union officials. As the grievance stated, "This was not a day's holiday for us, but a day on which we tried to get to work but could not. This situation arose through no fault of our own."

Tube unions TSSA and RMT both issued press releases, leading to high-profile coverage in London, and a week after the heaviest snowfall, the Evening Standard reported that Mayor Boris Johnson had backtracked, his spokesperson saying: "The Mayor has absolutely no intention of penalising anyone who failed to get to work due to last week's exceptional weather." It seems that making a fuss has made the employers back down, although workplace union reps will still have battles on their hands about individual cases.

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