People working at these Sheffield businesses claim they are being forced to leave home for non-essential jobs

Many workers across the city - including those most at risk of dying from coronavirus - say they are still being forced to leave home for non essential jobs or go into workplaces which are not practising strict social distancing.

Friday, 3rd April 2020, 1:33 pm
Updated Friday, 3rd April 2020, 2:26 pm

Employers have come under fire from staff, councillors and MPs who say those not following the rules set out by the government are putting lives in danger and could face prosecution.

The list of employers criticised for various reasons in Sheffield alone includes Dixon’s Carphone, Plusnet, ASOS, Capita, Veolia, Pretty Little Thing, Amey, Sheffield Council, the Home Office and many more.

It follows an announcement by prime minister Boris Johnson that people should only go to work "where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home", with shops selling "non-essential goods," including clothes, told to close immediately.

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MARCH 26: A giant television over the A57 Motorway urges people to stay home on March 26, 2020. Picture: Getty

However, health secretary Matt Hancock later said those who cannot work from home should go to work "to keep the country running".

Confusion around what is an essential job and variations in what support is available for those self isolating as well as discrepancies between social distancing in workplaces and the speed at which employers have reacted has left large numbers of people in fear.

In the Plusnet offices on Pinfold Street, employees - some of whom have underlying health conditions - say they are “scared to death” about having to still go in.

One employee, who did not want to be named, said a manager was sent home after contracting the virus and that another colleague who had symptoms was still coming in to avoid unpaid sick leave. They also said they were still required to hot desk.

One said: "I have aired my concerns to my manager and this was met with a dismissive suggestion if I continued to self isolate it would go on record as sick leave and could impact my pay.

"While I understand we have a duty to our vulnerable customers who rely on their phone lines to communicate with the outside world I do not think BT, who own Plusnet, have an effective contingency plan in place and are putting their employees at risk.

"There are a lot of us that feel we should not be there. We should be at home so we are not helping spread this virus, potentially extending the length of time this isolation needs to be in place. We cannot do this because we fear reprisals and loss of earnings."

But a spokesperson for the company said it was doing "everything it can" to protect staff and had "strict social distancing" in place.

Alarm was also raised about crowded warehouses where workers were required to pack clothes for online stores in close proximity to one another - including at ASOS' Barnsley site which has up to 4,000 employees and Pretty Little Thing's (PLT) Sheffield site.

Staff described the situation in Barnsley as like "playing Russian roulette with people's lives" - which prompted Stephanie Peacock MP and GMB union to call for action but the company has refuted claims saying it will keep its warehouse open "for the good of employees and the economy".

In PLT's Tinsley warehouse workers said there was a shortage of hand sanitiser and it was "impossible" to keep a safe distance from others.

PLT said it had "implemented stringent hygiene and self-distancing measures".

Sheffield Council was also shamed for telling gas fitters to continue going from home to home for routine inspections.

Local councillors called for this to stop immediately but the authority said it was a legal requirement and was "taking appropriate steps to alleviate concerns".

Coun Douglas Johnson, leader of the Green Party, said: “This is obviously a danger for lots of people and completely inappropriate.

"Gas safety inspections are important and there is a reason annual checks are mandatory but at the same time, landlords also have to get to grips with the very serious health and safety issues from coronavirus.

"There’s a world of difference between emergency services to fix boiler breakdowns and routine inspections that could wait for now."

Bosses at Dixon's Carphone worried staff at its contact centre on Nunnery Square when it initially refused to shut following announcement of a lockdown. It later said it was closing its sites for safety, asking most of its staff to work from home but then a day later asked managers to tell some staff to return to work from the office.

One manager said the work was not essential and related to after sales enquiries, despite the company describing those still forced to come in as "key colleagues".

They said: "They cannot announce a closure in the interest of safety then start asking colleagues to come back in less than 24 hours later, but unfortunately our concerns are not being listed to."

Dixon's Carphone said its position had not changed and those left were working a safe distance apart.

Meanwhile at Capita, staff say social distancing is "very hard" to stick to and rules are being flouted regularly. There are also reports of there still being around 40 people on each floor with some working on "unnecessary" campaigns such as Three, Lloyds, PPI and O2 sales.

Staff also said colleagues were coming into work with symptoms of the virus as those who choose to self isolate are only offered statutory sick pay - which means losing around £190 a week for full time workers on the national minimum wage.

Capita said they have made arrangements for as many employees as possible to work from home and put measures in place for social distancing where they are open.

Binmen at Veolia were concerned for their safety saying they were not given any hand sanitiser and were forced to gather en-masse every day at the depot.

Veolia said it was "taking all necessary steps to ensure the health of our workforce" and operations were being "carefully managed".

Louise Haigh, MP for Sheffield Heeley, said she, too, was inundated with constituents - including a pregnant woman, an asthmatic and a diabetic - asking for support with such issues in their workplace.

She has now called for better enforcement and along with other MPs wrote to ministers asking for more clarity that those who are not a key worker should be at home either on full pay or furlough - 80 percent of pay.

She said: "Many employers are doing the right thing and protecting their staff during this crisis. For those that aren’t - if we cannot get them to see sense - then enforcement action must be taken.

"A clear message must be sent that we will not tolerate employers who risk the health of their staff during this crisis. I would warn those employers who are behaving recklessly that they are on the wrong side of the law, and they are risking prosecution."

In the meantime, Bill Adams from the Trades Union Congress advised workers who felt they were being asked to take "unnecessary risks" to seek immediate advice from a union or get together to "tell the bosses that what they're doing is unsafe".

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