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Employees confused as production continues despite Government lockdown

By Thomas Parkes | Wolverhampton | Business | Published:

Staff at firms across the Black Country and Staffordshire have expressed their surprise at workplaces still being open despite the Government lockdown.

Workers from several firms have contacted the Express & Star to criticise the fact their employers have told them to keep working as normal despite the new measures introduced on Monday.

However, many employers have been left confused by the Government guidance which tells businesses to "encourage employees to work at home wherever possible".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a range of shops and hospitality businesses to close to stop the spread of coronavirus but did not force the closure of workplaces such as factories with production lines where social distancing is difficult.

Official guidance urges people to stay two metres away from each other and to only go outside for food, health reasons or work where it "absolutely cannot be done from home".

One worker from a Wolverhampton printing business, who wished to stay anonymous, said he was shocked when he called his manager to find out he was expected to go in to the night shift as normal despite the firm not making any essential products.

Another said staff had only been promised statutory sick pay if they were self-isolating, while one depot worker at major bed chain said staff had still not been given the protective equipment or hand sanitiser they had been promised.

Furlough

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The Government has sought to protect jobs by allowing firms to 'furlough' workers for three months if they are unable to pay wages due to Covid-19.

But some managers have told staff production must continue as their firms would not be eligible for the 80 per cent of wages offered by the Government if they are shut down.

Instead being made redundant, 'furloughed' workers will cease work but still be paid 80 per cent of their wages via a Government grant.

Workers remain classed as employed but are not allowed to actually work for the firm while being paid by the Government.

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Still open

Wyvern Furniture, based on the Hartlebury Trading Estate near Kidderminster, confirmed the business would remain open and was awaiting further Government advice.

Tricorn UK, which manufactures auto parts from its base in West Bromwich, was also reported to have stayed open on Monday.

And an M&S store in Merry Hill was among several of the chain's branches which had its womenswear section open to the public – with staff still working in the department.

A shopper, who wished to be anonymous, described the move as "ridiculous".

She said: "It was dead in there, absolutely dead, and there was these workers still having to work in there.

"Why are they still open? It's crazy and I just felt so sorry for them.

"The staff were in the women's department – who's going to buy a jumper or bra when this is all going on? I think it's disgusting."

A spokeswoman for M&S said: "Our 31 outlet stores selling only clothing and home will be temporarily closed from today.

"Our standalone Simply Food stores and food halls within our larger stores will be open, as we play our part in helping customers get the food they need.

"Within our larger stores where we sell clothing and homeware as well as food, we continue to trade food as normal and colleagues are making the changes required elsewhere to ensure we follow the Government’s guidance."

What does the guidance say?

The following is from the Government's "full guidance on staying at home and away from others" published on March 23:

"People can travel to and from work, but only where the work they do absolutely cannot be done from home.

"With the exception of the organisations covered in the section on closing non-essential shops and public spaces, the Government has not required any other businesses to close – indeed it is important for business to carry on.

"Employers and employees should discuss their working arrangements, and employers should take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home, including providing suitable IT and equipment to enable remote working.

"Sometimes this will not be possible, as not everyone can work from home. Certain jobs require people to travel to their place of work – for instance if they operate machinery, work in construction or manufacturing, or are delivering front line services.

"Employers who have people in their offices or onsite should ensure that employees are able to follow Public Health England guidelines including, where possible, maintaining a 2 metre distance from others, and washing their hands with soap and water often for at least 20 seconds (or using hand sanitiser gel if soap and water is not available).

"Work carried out in people’s homes, for example by tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance, can continue, provided that the tradesperson is well and has no symptoms. Again, it will be important to ensure that Public Health England guidelines, including maintaining a two-metre distance from any household occupants, are followed to ensure everyone’s safety.

"No work should be carried out in any household which is isolating or where an individual is being shielded, unless it is to remedy a direct risk to the safety of the household, such as emergency plumbing or repairs, and where the tradesperson is willing to do so. In such cases, Public Health England can provide advice to tradespeople and households.

"No work should be carried out by a tradesperson who has coronavirus symptoms, however mild.

"As set out in the section on closing non-essential shops and public spaces, the Government has ordered certain businesses and venues to close. "

Confusion

Some workers at the Newlife charity in Cannock also said they had been told to continue working.

An anonymous member of staff said: "We had a text from the organisation which said if you've not been furloughed, you need to be coming in.

"There's been lots of conversations and I came in expecting to be sent home.

"It's been incredibly insensitive thing – we're all genuinely worried about what's going to happen.

"We're all being told we have to come in."

A spokesman for the charity said: "We are in the process of furloughing many of our team members, and of March 23 we took pro-active steps to close all our stores.

"As of 12:30pm on March 24 our processing teams (working in warehouses) have also been furloughed.

"Following the Government's advice, to reduce operations to essential activities, existing team members will be in low risk and remote working scenarios.

"Some of our frontline services, like our nurses & care team who are supporting families with vulnerable children at the height of this pandemic, will continue to conduct services by phone that echo our core values at a time of crisis."

Commercial printer William Gibbons and Sons, based on Planetary Way in Willenhall, was also open as normal on Monday.

And staff at Cousins Furniture were also initially told to go into work as normal but a statement from the furniture retailer said stores would close at the end of Monday.

Tricorn UK and William Gibbons and Sons have also been contacted for comment.

Thomas Parkes

By Thomas Parkes
Senior Reporter - @TParkes_Star

Senior reporter at the Express & Star, based in Wolverhampton. Got a story? Get in touch at thomas.parkes@expressandstar.co.uk.

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