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Is it fair for Suffolk council staff to take unpaid leave to cut costs?

PUBLISHED: 13:19 20 December 2018

Suffolk County Council may force staff to take an extra day of leave unpaid to reduce costs Picture: ARCHANT

Suffolk County Council may force staff to take an extra day of leave unpaid to reduce costs Picture: ARCHANT

A leading union says that staff at Suffolk County Council won't "put up with bosses grabbing their pay" following proposals to force them to take an extra day of leave that will go unpaid.

As part of cost cutting measures, the cash-strapped council proposed in November to make staff take two days of unpaid leave over the next two years, with money coming out of their monthly salaries.

Following pressure from UNISON, the council is now asking staff to take one day of unpaid leave for one year, but union chiefs said the proposed £250,000 savings the council claims it would make would only be slightly more than the cost of the its new director of people.

Sam Leigh, regional organiser for UNISON, said: “Suffolk County Council has been pushed onto the back foot after staff made it clear that they wouldn’t put up with bosses grabbing their pay.

“But this one-day pay cut is still an insult to staff who have kept council services running through years of austerity.

“Losing a day’s pay will have a huge affect on these vital workers but £250,000 would do nothing to rescue the council’s ailing finances, especially when we know that there are also £3million worth of staffing cuts planned.

“This will only add to the pressure on our essential services.

“The council must stop trying to make its staff pay for austerity and properly fund the public services the people of Suffolk deserve.”

The union confirmed it had surveyed staff, and while the figures had not been made publicly available it said the result was “overwhelming”.

It is not yet clear whether the council would force staff to all take the same day off, such as around Christmas where further savings could be made by having the office closed for an extra day, or whether staff would be free to take it when they wanted.

A Suffolk County Council spokesman said: “The council continues to have productive meetings and negotiations with UNISON, including unpaid leave for staff.

“Discussions are still ongoing and any outcome will be subject to a ballot of UNISON members.”

The proposals were unveiled in November in the first draft of the council’s 2019/20 budget, which aimed to make £11.2m in savings, and included controversial cuts to Citizens Advice grants and reduced road sign cleaning.

Analysis

The matter of unpaid leave is always one which tends to divide opinion, not least because individual circumstances will to a large extent dictate whether workers are for or against the proposals.

On the one side, it’s easy to see why staff will feel annoyed.

Being told to take an extra day off without pay does nothing for those who have no reason or desire to take the extra day, and, particularly for lower earners that day’s wages could prove vital – particularly in the run up to Christmas when finances are often at their tightest.

Conversely, some will probably not notice the difference of one day’s wages and may see the additional day off as a bonus.

Lots of companies offer the ability to ‘buy’ extra days of holiday, so in reality this is largely no different.

But plenty of question marks still remain – will staff be able to take the day off when they want? If so that will probably favour parents of young families who want to use that day to cover childcare or have an additional day with the family during school holidays.

Similarly, the decision to subtract that day’s wages by a small portion each month probably hides the impact of it more.

It should be noted too that the council has its back against the wall with budget pressures, and while £250,000 of savings may not sound like much in the context of £11m needing to be found, the truth is it has to come from somewhere and the pennies add up.

The difficulty comes in how much it is considered for the ‘greater good’ – hitting workers with cost cutting measures smacks of unfairness, but every cut will have a victim, whether it is users of public transport, those who rely on Citizens Advice Bureaux or those needing care.

Perhaps a ‘hidden’ cut which means £250,000 of frontline services are not cut is the most logical answer.

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