Hi again everyone. We hope you’re all well and are looking forward to a break at the weekend if you’re off. If you are working at the weekend, as we know many of our members do, then we hope you have a well-deserved rest very soon.
Coronavirus – Local update
We have today been informed and members will likely have seen in the media, that Wirral along with other Merseyside authorities have been placed on the Government’s watch list. What this means in practice is that the Government will be closely monitoring the situation in Merseyside and that authorities will have to report back on measures that have been taken to avoid a local lockdown in the area; if cases continue to rise then restrictions may be imposed.
We detailed yesterday some of the measures that are being taken locally. Council staff in a number of service areas such as leisure and libraries are being redeployed to a dedicated team to raise awareness and publicise the steps being taken to protect our community. This team will not be dealing with non-compliance of any guidance, which will instead be dealt with by officers experienced in enforcement; we would support this approach.
We are aware that positive cases have been reported in schools locally however, we are not aware of any outbreaks within schools, an outbreak being defined (in a school setting) as two or more linked cases. This is positive news that will provide some reassurance but we will continue to monitor the information. Wirral Unison has raised the question as to whether wider use of face coverings within schools should be considered. However, we understand that Public Health do not currently feel this measure is required as a direction.
You may have heard that although a number of testing sites were being made available such as in Birkenhead and Liscard, the site in Bidston was due to close, this was not a decision made by Wirral authorities, however we understand that they have secured an extension for Bidston to remain open for a further period, which is to be welcomed.
As we have said previously, we know that the increases in cases are worrying for everyone and we would encourage our members to wear a face covering where appropriate, wash your hands regularly and maintain social distancing.
Working from Home
The results from UNISON’s annual equalities survey are in, and after 8,825 responses including from Black, disabled, women and LGBT+ members, one of the most contentious topics is working from home. The survey identified some key issues arising from homeworking including, technical equipment and communications, health and wellbeing, psychological pressures and abuse at home, caring responsibilities and disabilities. For more details please follow the link to Unison’s national website https://www.unison.org.uk/news/article/2020/09/homeworking-versus-office-isnt-straightforward-choice/
As our members are hopefully aware, the branch has recognised that whilst homeworking has been a positive experience for some, for others there have been challenges. We discussed the issue at length in our recent Branch Committee meeting and as a result have begun to develop a programme for homeworking. Below is a copy of the motion that we will be submitting to Unison’s North West Regional Council, setting out some of the issues that need to be considered. This motion will be hopefully considered at a meeting in early October. We would welcome your views on this but additionally we will also be launching a survey of our members in relation to homeworking and holding some online meetings in the near future.
Homeworking – a Union Issue
This Regional Council notes that the Covid-19 Pandemic has had a significant impact upon the world of work. These changes have been substantial and whilst some may be temporary, there are some that may be longer lasting. One of the potential changes is the question of Homeworking vs Office (or other workplace). We recognise that the Government is pushing for a return to the workplace; whilst many employers are viewing homeworking as a long term tactic. In both cases the motivation is primarily financial and the interests of workers barely gets a momentary consideration. It is therefore essential that UNISON is there to ensure that the interests of our members are front and centre of any considerations and discussions with employers.
We recognise that in representing the interests of our members we cannot take a simplistic approach to the issue of homeworking; there are many aspects that must be considered. Research in homeworking has escalated with the recent crisis and identified developing trends, and technology continues to advance, so we must be prepared to monitor the ongoing analysis develop our approach in line with the evidential base.
For many years the question of work life balance has been high on our agenda as a trade union, and we have negotiated great improvements to policies and procedures that have benefited many of our members. Homeworking certainly will have an impact upon the question of work life balance. We recognise that there can be a significant benefit for a homeworker in having greater flexibility to manage their day. An example of this may be around taking a break to do the school run, or breaking the working day into different periods; perhaps doing a couple of hours work after the children have gone to bed, or to help manage a disability. The enhanced ability to organise a hectic lifestyle will be a potential benefit to many members.
The ability to maximise this benefit however may well be restricted by the expectations of the employer or manager that staff are readily available at certain times. Having a clear understanding on both sides of what is expected can be crucial in these circumstances. We are concerned about the growing use of analytics to monitor performance and time ‘logged on’. This can be a particularly oppressive method for homeworkers; when all work including phone calls is via a computer this can be used my unscrupulous employer or manager to intensify pressure upon staff and maximise output. UNISON should press for all homeworkers to have a homeworking agreement in place that clearly sets out the obligations and expectations on both sides.
Homeworking can have a significant impact upon the mental well-being of our members and it is important that we take account of that in negotiating agreements. The reduction in travel and greater control over working patterns can help alleviate stress and improve mental health. The time saved on travel to work (54 mins per day in Wirral) can be more valuably used by many, although for some this travel time can be a sanctuary. However, this crisis has highlighted the damaging impact upon mental health that may come with working from home. These problems may come from management in terms of too distant management, or conversely, micromanagement, increased pressure on targets or cyber bullying.
However one phenomenon that is being increasingly highlighted is the impact of social isolation and loneliness. Whilst studies identifying this as a significant issue with homeworking, pre-date the current pandemic, they have increased in number recently, with the issue receiving, rightly a much higher focus. Results of studies may vary but there is a common theme emerging. A recent study on behalf of a recruitment agency found that nearly half of workers talked of experiencing loneliness during lockdown; the impact was felt disproportionately by women and especially by young workers. Social interactions whilst working have halved and those that do occur are mainly online and structured. The informal conversations and support have often been lost, this can effect relationship and performance at work. This is highlighted by the fact 36% worry about interrupting a colleague, and 28% struggle to bring up questions they would usually ask in a casual face-to-face situation. Worryingly only 39% of those who felt lonely decided to share their feelings with other people and only 10% do so with colleagues or their manager. This demonstrates that whilst the problems surrounding homeworking are known about, the extent may be hidden and therefore underappreciated, particularly by employers.
We also recognise that there may be significant financial impact on the member who works from home. Any saving on travel may be more than offset by the extra utility costs, this can particularly impact lower paid members. Wherever possible we should negotiate the payment of a Homeworking Allowance, in line with the tax-exempt payment allowed by HMRC (currently £26). We also recognise that there needs to be clarity regarding expenses for travel; for homeworkers it needs to be recognised that the home address should also the base for expenditure purposes.
The obligations on the employer under Health and Safety legislation to provide a safe working environment are not absolved with homeworking, but too often are overlooked or minimised. The employer retains a duty to the homeworker to ensure the workplace is safe and suitable; it may not be appropriate for someone to work from home, as their home is not ‘suitable’. The employer must also assess the risks associated with lone working, stress and mental health. However too often employers are delegating these tasks of assessing the risk to the employee without due oversight. UNISON needs to ensure that proportionate but robust risk assessments are in place and reviewed regularly.
Alongside the issues for members homeworking also poses significant challenges for trade unions, particularly for the organisation of long term and permanent homeworkers. As members lose the informal conversations in the workplace, so do stewards; we risk missing out on ‘informal intelligence’ when we pick up on rumours of changes, problems and opportunities for the workforce. It poses the question of how do we keep in contact with our members; how do we keep them informed, and how do we retain our visibility? We also have the problem of reaching out to non-members. How do we ensure that they are aware of our activities, how do we convince them to join? New technology and social media provides opportunities but we should not assume it is sufficient. We also need to negotiate appropriate policies for homeworkers, include defining an ad hoc or occasional arrangement, regular (2 or 3 days) and normal (80%+), to ensure that our members rights and well-being are protected.
This Regional Council recognises that we need to take a serious but balanced approach to homeworking, and that we must keep in touch with the latest research and tools. As part of this approach this Regional Council agrees to:
- Develop Training for stewards on ‘Union Organising amongst Homeworkers’.
- Develop a Charter for Homeworkers.
- Develop a Negotiating framework for Branches to address the following demands
- Every Worker should have the choice of whether to work from home (if the job allows, and the home allows)
- That homeworkers should receive the tax exempt Homeworking Allowance
- That every homeworker has a Homeworkers Agreement setting out rights, responsibilities and expectations
- That appropriate risk assessments are undertaken for all homeworkers
That’s all for today everyone. As always, please feel free to pass our updates on to colleagues and encourage them to join Unison if they haven’t already. Here’s the link to join up! JOIN UNISON
Enjoy your weekend and we’ll be back in touch on Monday with a further update. Stay safe.
Your Wirral Unison Team
Branch Office: 0151 666 3040
Central email: email@example.com