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Employment and redundancy top concerns for Westminster residents


Employment Adviser and Policy and Campaigns Coordinator, Brenda Smith describes what it has been like for her to gear up to deal with the influx of job-related enquiries arising from the Covid-19 crisis.

“I was on leave in Colombia at the beginning of March so the first I heard about the coronavirus crisis was a WhatsApp chat by friends about stocking up on toilet paper! 

“I was on leave for a further week on my return so it was only when a colleague  arrived at my door to deliver a laptop and some reference books so I could work from home that I fully realised the extent of the pandemic crisis.”

“Debt and housing normally top the issues list at Citizens Advice Westminster, but now we were in a situation where employment queries escalated as we were dealing with a very live and fast moving situation with minimal guidance and information.

“So I rapidly realised that I needed to read all of the government guidance and information on key websites such as the Martin Lewis – Money Saving Expert. I found I was consulting the expert employment team at Citizens Advice more often than usual. Clients’ cases were also more complex than I had previously experienced and I could not find answers on our usually very comprehensive Advisernet information network.

“I was fortunate to have worked at a local law centre dealing with employment tribunals so had a good background in employment, attending case conferences with legal counsel to prepare for hearings. This helped me understand the perspective of employers and HR professionals as well as clients. This proved to be very helpful when advising clients during the pandemic as, in some cases, employers had little choice but to follow the government rules and procedures and clients might not have been eligible for support.

“I also attended several excellent on-line webinars provided by law firms which helped contextualise and build my confidence in understanding the issues and explaining them clearly to clients. I was then better equipped to advise clients about the strategy they needed to adopt to challenge their employer and to ask the hard questions.

“It was a steep learning curve, but it meant that I could empower clients to have an effective discussion with their employer about their options and being treated fairly under the rules.

“One of the hardest things was the fact that most people did not understand they did not have an automatic right to being furloughed. The official information did not stress that point sufficiently at the outset. The employer could opt to apply for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, but if they did not do so the employee could not benefit from it. This was a big shock for many clients and a big disappointment.

“It was difficult to be the bearer of bad news in many cases.  Many other people did not realise they needed 2 years’ continuous employment to qualify for the protection of ordinary unfair dismissal. Other clients were abroad when the pandemic hit so the employer decided they could not furlough them as they were unable to get back to be available for work as required under the rules.

“As the range and scale of people’s questions was huge, the guidance did not cover every eventuality so there was a lot of “doing it on the hoof” in getting to grips with the available information.

“I was also seeing a lot of clients with £75,000 plus salaries who found themselves in this unprecedented situation of facing redundancy. They had usually read  the available information, so their questions were much more detailed and searching. Many client’s identity was also very aligned to their job, so it was not just about the loss of income for them, they wanted to be treated objectively, fairly and with dignity.  I found I was having to research employment law in greater detail so I could explain the nuanced language of ordinary dismissal, constructive dismissal, automatic unfair dismissal, and redundancy.

“As for  clients on low pay and zero hours contracts, many were very sanguine about their plight but wanted their just entitlement to outstanding pay and holiday pay. For them, the prospect of going to ACAS (Early conciliation scheme) or an employment tribunal was a non-starter as it was all too remote and they needed the cash now to pay for daily living expenses. I really felt for those people as they had no real recourse to resolve their problems quickly.

“I was also contacted by many more clients with a disability than usual, seeking advice on the question of ‘shielding’ and “reasonable adjustments” by their employer. And some employers were ordering staff to work even though they had furloughed them, where the condition is the person should not be working.

“In some cases where I could not offer them a solution, it was rewarding to be able to send them off better informed and empowered to write an effective letter to their employer and manage their situation. And most clients were very pleasant to deal with, in spite of their natural distress, and grateful to have had a sympathetic hearing.

“My advice to any new client seeking our help would be first  to check out the guidance on Citizens Advice and government websites. This will give you some idea of what to expect in relation to your kind of employment and status during the pandemic. You must also act quickly as action must be taken within a prescribed time frame. “

For further information on employment issues during Covid visit our website:

https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/work/coronavirus-being-furloughed-if-you-cant-work/

 

Brenda Smith
Employment Adviser and Policy and Campaigns Coordinator

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