One of the companies responsible for assessing disability benefit eligibility failed to make its own workplace accessible for a disabled employee for more than three years, and then sacked her when she became too ill to work.
Sharon Dickens is the latest disabled whistleblower to speak to Disability News Service (DNS) about the discrimination they have experienced working for Capita.
They have described how Capita – already under fire over its performance in assessing claimants of personal independence payment across Wales and central England – appears to have no proper policies in place to manage staff protected under the Equality Act.
Dickens worked as a customer service advisor for Service Birmingham, a joint enterprise that is two-thirds owned by Capita and one-third by Birmingham City Council and aims to “transform” the council’s public services, including its IT services and call centre.
Capita managers make decisions on PIP claims on the other side of the office, just yards away from where Service Birmingham staff work.
Dickens was dismissed earlier this month, nearly four years after she started working for Service Birmingham, when the company decided she was not capable of doing her job because of the amount of time she had taken off sick.
She says she only took that time off sick because of the company’s failure to provide reasonable adjustments for her in the workplace.
She is now taking Service Birmingham to an employment tribunal, claiming disability discrimination and unfair dismissal. She says the company made her life “hell” while she was working there.
Dickens had told Capita about her health condition, but says it was a battle from the start to secure the adjustments she needed, including a specialist chair to support her with her chronic abdominal pain.
She was not seen by an occupational health assessor until she had been in the job for more than two years. It then took another eight months for Capita to arrange a meeting about her assessment, and when it did, her managers told her the assessment was out-of-date and would have to be repeated.
She gave Capita access to her medical records and her GP provided a full report last August, but her managers failed to arrange a meeting to discuss it.
As a result of the treatment she experienced at the hands of Capita, she was diagnosed with stress, depression and panic attacks, which she is still being treated for.
But despite the diagnosis, the company refused to allow her to sit on the edge of the workspace, forcing her to work instead in the middle of the busy, open-plan office.
On one occasion, she passed out and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. A colleague who accompanied her was forced to take the time as unpaid leave.
Although Dickens was eventually provided with a suitable chair in January this year – one that was already being used by someone else in the office – she never received the other equipment she needed, including an anti-glare keyboard and computer screen.
She said: “They have pushed me out and discriminated against me. It is still going on there. A lot of people are waiting for referrals to occupational health.
“There are several internal grievances that have been lodged, including at least three for disability discrimination. All of them are people with health conditions who are complaining about the lack of adjustments.”
She added: “If they cannot deal with their own employees who have disabilities, how can they be trusted to deal with thousands of people’s [PIP] claims?
“The public don’t get to see first-hand the attitude of these managers towards people with disabilities, yet this very same company is responsible for assessing and making decisions on people across the nation.”
In March, DNS reported how four other disabled employees of Service Birmingham had raised concerns about the way Capita was treating its disabled staff.
One whistleblower raised concerns with the Labour councillor who chairs Service Birmingham, Dr Barry Henley – copying his email to the council leader, Sir Albert Bore – after failing to persuade the company to deal with the issues internally.
Disabled employees said they had asked repeatedly for the support they needed, but their requests had been turned down or equipment took months to arrive.
Staff who were denied reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act were then handed warnings for taking time off sick, or were demoted.
Henley told DNS in March that there was an ongoing “independent” investigation into the whistleblowers’ claims.
A Capita spokeswoman, speaking for Service Birmingham on behalf of both Capita and the city council, said this week of Sharon Dickens’ concerns: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on individual cases.
“Service Birmingham is committed to providing all of its employees with equal opportunities and putting in place reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability.
“We will investigate any complaints robustly and take the appropriate action.”
So far, neither Capita nor the city council has been willing to say what has happened to the “independent” investigation that was ongoing in March.
Capita was criticised last autumn after Service Birmingham’s pre-tax profits leapt by more than half to £21 million.
31 July 2014