Disabled workers have had to choose “between their lives and their livelihoods” during the pandemic, because of employers’ failure to provide them with the reasonable adjustments they are entitled to by law, union activists have heard.
The annual TUC disabled workers’ conference heard several speakers call for urgent action to strengthen enforcement of the Equality Act so that individual disabled people do not need to take legal action to secure their right to reasonable adjustments.
Some called on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to urgently review its Equality Act employment code of practice to make it clear how quickly a reasonable adjustment should be provided by an employer.
Amy Bishop, from the Prospect union, said a survey by the Business Disability Forum in 2019 found almost a fifth of respondents had waited over a year for reasonable adjustments to be put in place, with eight per cent waiting over two years.
She told the online conference that neither the Equality Act nor the associated code of practice gave any guidelines for how long this should take, and that strengthening the EHRC code of practice “should be easier to achieve” than changes to the act itself.
Mark Anthony Bastiani, from the Communication Workers Union, highlighted that disabled people had accounted for six in 10 COVID-related deaths.
He said: “How many lives could have been saved if there had been a reasonable adjustment in from the start?
“We saw companies not willing to allow our members to work from home at the start, members afraid if they did not come in to work they could lose their job, lose pay or be put onto the furlough scheme and lose money, just because there was no reasonable adjustment in place.”
He called for laws that are “enforceable from day one” and protect disabled workers requesting a reasonable adjustment.
Uday Pandya, from the shop workers’ union USDAW, said: “Getting reasonable adjustments and hanging onto them has always been an uphill struggle for disabled workers.
“The pandemic has made the struggle even harder.
“I am glad that TUC, backed by unions, are pushing for the EHRC to amend and strengthen the guidance so that we can hold managers and employers accountable.”
In a statement issued before the conference, the TUC disabled workers’ committee warned that some employers had treated putting reasonable adjustments in place as a “trivial matter”.
The committee said: “It is not. It is of great importance to individuals and to disabled workers as a whole.
“In the pandemic, getting and keeping reasonable adjustments appears to have become even harder for disabled workers and could force even more out of the workforce.”
Deborah Leigh, from the National Education Union, told the conference last Thursday: “The ask here is the enforcement of reasonable adjustments in a timely manner… a reasonable adjustment is not reasonable until it is implemented in a reasonable time.”
Graeme Ellis, from UNISON, was another to call for EHRC to “urgently” review and “comprehensively” update the code of practice, which he said should include examples of how long workers should be expected to wait for a reply to a reasonable adjustment request, and how long they should have to wait for an adjustment to be put in place.
He said that a UNISON survey of disabled members before the pandemic, in 2019, found two-thirds had been turned down for some or all the reasonable adjustments they needed at work.
Even when the employer said yes, 23 per cent waited a year or more for the adjustments to be put in place.
Ellis (pictured above, right) said: “Decades of wasted disabled people’s potential as we get chased through sickness absence and capability procedures, just because we can’t get a change to our hours, some IT software, or a decent office chair.
“And it’s the reason there is a disability pay gap. We end up on the lower rung of the pay scales because we do not get the adjustments we need to enable us to shine and to progress in our jobs.”
Rachel O’Brien, Inclusion London’s policy and public affairs officer, told the conference that the pandemic had shown that “reasonable adjustments that were once a pipe dream for disabled people, dismissed by employers as not possible or realistic, are in fact both possible and necessary”.
This included the move to home working, which she said had “greatly benefited many disabled workers”.
But she said Inclusion London had also heard of disabled workers “at increased risk from coronavirus, who cannot work from home, being forced into work under the threat of redundancy” and so have “had to choose between their livelihoods and their lives”.
She said the problem with reasonable adjustments was how to enforce them, thanks to a “toothless” Equality Act which “relies on individual disabled people who have been discriminated against making a case against, in this instance, their employer”.
O’Brien (pictured above, centre) called for a national regulator and enforcement of reasonable adjustments “that does not rely on individual disabled people taking legal action”.
Austin Harney, from the PCS union, criticised the Civil Service’s “draconian” sickness absence policy.
He said: “During the COVID-19 crisis, employers’ ability to make reasonable adjustments on time in the Civil Service has been appalling.
“Many employees have been forced against their will to go into work, particularly in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions.”
Harney also warned that the number of employees in the Civil Service with a physical impairment was falling because of the government’s “cuts agenda impacting on reasonable adjustment support”.
Elane Heffernan, from the University and College Union, said: “Now more than ever I think it is crucial that we get a much stronger, much clearer and more enforceable right to get the adjustments that we need to be able to work.
“Without adjustments we are one ableist boss away from all of us joining the unemployment queues and having to live on benefits.”
Lynn Degele, from the National Union of Journalists, told fellow disabled workers: “Knowing my rights has meant I could focus on my work and wellbeing without the distraction and worry about how I would do that work.
“By normalising reasonable adjustments, we can make clearer to employers and disabled workers what is possible.”
Janine Booth (pictured above, left), from the RMT transport workers’ union, said that reasonable adjustments were only ever “Plan B”.
She told the conference: “Plan A is an accessible workplace. We want disabled workers to be able to access work without having to ask for barriers to be removed because those barriers are no longer there.
“It’s far better for a workplace to be made as accessible as possible than for a disabled worker as an individual to have to ask for an adjustment.”
In a second statement published before the conference, the disabled workers’ committee said: “For years disabled workers were told by employers that working from home as a reasonable adjustment was just not feasible.
“Members were told home working wasn’t their employers’ policy. They were told home working just wasn’t likely to be adopted.”
The committee pointed to a UNISON survey on homeworking during the pandemic, which found that almost three quarters (73 per cent) of disabled workers were more productive or just as productive working from home.
The statement added: “When asked why they said the reasons for increased productivity included a reduced impact on pain and fatigue due to less commuting and ability to work more flexibly with additional breaks or later start times.
“For over a year, employers have enabled homeworking where they have said in the past it was not possible.
“We have seen it can work and it is possible. We must ensure disabled workers who want to work from home as a reasonable adjustment can do so.”
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