The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been refusing to allow many staff to work from home during the coronavirus crisis, even if they live with people with long-term health conditions, or must travel to work on public transport.
One source in the department, David*, has told Disability News Service (DNS) that he and other staff in the universal credit (UC) service centre in Bristol where he works were refused permission to work from home.
Instead, they were forced to continue to come into the office to work, often travelling on buses and trains.
David said: “Some of my colleagues are worried about this as they live with elderly relatives or are the carers of elderly relatives with health conditions who can’t afford to get the virus. Many of us use buses and trains to get to work.”
Other staff who were self-isolating at home because they had long-term health conditions were also originally refused permission to work from home.
When managers were unable to explain their refusal to allow staff to work from home, they were reminded that the government was urging other employers to allow their staff to do so.
David said: “The government can’t tell businesses to make their employees work from home if they’re not willing to do it for their own office staff.”
He said it had only been in the last few days that managers have started to order laptops for staff with long-term health conditions who may need to self-isolate for 12 weeks, so they can work from home.
But he said: “We’re worried at how long it’s going to take to clear all the piled-up work.
“There’s so much of it that even thinking of the amount is nerve-wracking.
“We’re concentrating on doing what we can and hoping things will stop looking so dire once all staff are given the resources to work, assuming we ever see these laptops.”
But he warned that UC could “fail dramatically” because of the increasing number of DWP staff who will have to stay at home due to self-isolating or looking after children.
Another source within the department, Tom*, said DWP had been slow to react to the COVID-19 crisis because of chronic under-investment in its IT systems.
He said the department had made no attempt over the last few years to prepare a contingency plan for such a catastrophic event affecting the whole of the UK.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in new UC claims, as hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs or have seen their earnings plummet.
Last week, DWP tweeted that it was “redeploying” 10,000 staff to the “frontline” so that new benefit claimants could receive their payments on time.
Yesterday (Wednesday), work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said DWP had registered nearly one million new claims for UC in the previous fortnight.
Meanwhile, DWP has seen a significant proportion of its own workforce report in sick with COVID-19 symptoms or be forced to self-isolate at home because of long-term health conditions.
Tom said last week that DWP’s attempts to deal with the crisis had been hampered by a shortage of remote connections that staff could use to log into its secure system when working from home.
He said: “We are not prepared. The money has not been invested.
“Everything is being done on the fly. They have never had anything in place for a disaster scenario.”
He said this week that DWP had now managed to increase the number of remote connections, although there were probably still not enough to allow more than a small proportion of staff to work from home.
He confirmed David’s report that the department had now started to order laptops, which will allow more staff to work from home.
A third source, who works at a large DWP office in the north-west of England, also confirmed that the department had not yet been able to provide enough secure laptops to allow more than a small proportion of staff to work from home.
She said there was only about one secure laptop for every 25 staff, and most of them were used by managers, although others have been ordered.
She said: “People I know who are having to go into work (a lot are self-isolating due to underlying conditions or other people in their household who might be infected) are worried that they are at risk of contracting COVID-19.
“Consequently, they are annoyed that more secure laptops have not been provided yet, so they can work from home and avoid the risk of going into the office.”
DNS approached the PCS union for a response to the concerns, but it had not responded by noon today (Thursday).
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We are immensely proud of our dedicated staff and their safety remains a primary concern.
“We continue to follow the latest guidance.”
DWP also said that most of its operations for processing benefit claims were office-based and that it was currently experiencing unprecedented demand, so it was essential that some of its staff continued to work on site in jobcentres and other offices.
DWP also said it was working to bring in additional staff from across the department and the wider Civil Service to help deal with unprecedented claim volumes.
*Not their real names
**Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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