Job centre workers 'feel unsafe returning to work'

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Many job centre workers currently do not feel safe about returning to the office due to continued concerns about the coronavirus, a union has claimed.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union surveyed 1,299 members and found that three in five workers feel unsafe about going back.

It says "a majority" of in-person interviews to discuss benefits claims should be done remotely over the phone.

The issue could result in industrial action, the union has warned.

PCS found that only 21% of staff surveyed could say for certain that they "felt safe" dealing with face-to-face claimant appointments in job centres across the UK.

The union says the vast bulk of the in-person interviews for Universal Credit and other benefits should be done remotely.

From 12 April onwards, the numbers of in-person interviews at job centres, particularly in the 18-24 age group, will be increasing.

The BBC understands there are concerns that the government wants more people to visit job centres in person so they can be assessed for "conditionality".

The implication is that some people could see their benefits taken away from them, if they fail to meet certain behavioural conditions.

Potential industrial action

"These results reflect the anger and frustration our members feel every day," said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.

"Thousands of Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) staff have been providing support to claimants safely from home throughout the pandemic - the only logical reason they would insist on fully reopening is because management's obsession with sanctioning vulnerable claimants."

He added that the statistics collected by the union "should send a strong signal to ministers" that they needed to meet with staff soon "to avoid potential industrial action".

A DWP spokesman said: "Throughout this pandemic, jobcentres have remained open to ensure we can continue to provide vital support to the most vulnerable. Our return to full opening hours will enable us to provide even more help and support to those who need us."

He added that the health and safety of colleagues was taken "extremely seriously".

"[We] are absolutely committed to ensuring all our sites remain Covid secure in line with PHE and government guidance to keep colleagues and customers safe."

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