Ministers mustn’t forget important workers delivering essential services, says UNISON

Local government workers facing coronavirus risks and pressures

The government must do more to help thousands of “hidden workers” who are being put under extra pressure or are seeing their health put at risk as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, says UNISON today (Tuesday).

Alongside the frontline health and care staff, there are people around the UK keeping essential services going, who are being largely forgotten as they too face serious dangers and are being overwhelmed with work, the union warns.

They include refuse collectors, housing officers, social workers and teaching assistants whose work must continue but who are often unable to keep a safe distance or not entitled to safety kit.

Some are handling more potentially hazardous waste or facing other daily problems such as an increase in abuse as a result of lockdown measures, says the union.

UNISON has written to communities secretary Robert Jenrick, asking for proper risk assessments for these workers and a wider distribution of protective equipment (PPE) to cope with the dangers they’re facing. But staff are still facing problems.

Among those facing added pressures according to UNISON are:

  • Refuse workers, particularly those working for private contractors who are forced to sit in close contact in the cab. Some sensible employers have redeployed drivers to minibuses to take staff to their routes allowing correct social distancing.
  • Crematorium and cemetery workers who’ve faced virus risks where families have refused to follow the limit on numbers at funerals. Some have also faced abuse when they’ve challenged groups congregating in cemeteries.
  • Housing workers who run a wide range of risks. They deal with emergency situations such as domestic violence incidents, carry out emergency housing repairs and work with the homeless to get them into hostels and other accommodation.
  • Trading standards staff who’re looking into hundreds of coronavirus scams and online ‘phishing’ attempts, as well as dealing with distressed older people who have been duped.

UNISON is calling for urgent talks with the government to discuss the concerns of these workers and help to tackle them. The union represents more than 600,000 staff working in local government or in outsourced services such as social care.

UNISON head of local government Jon Richards said: “It’s understandable that throughout the crisis, public attention has been focused on the UK’s health and care workers.

“But it’s important the government and the country as a whole don’t overlook the people providing vital services who also face added risks during the pandemic.

“We’re hearing day in and day out of the difficulties and dangers. People want to do all they can to get us through the crisis, but they’re worried and being made increasingly anxious by their working conditions.

“Ministers have to make sure the concerns of all essential workers are addressed. It’s also vital they show a commitment to underfunded local services by increasing budgets so local authorities can increase the pay offer they’ve made to council workers.”

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