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The university had been criticised for its decision to not enroll 84 temporary staff on the Government Job Retention Scheme. But staff are concerned that the move falls short of full protection.

Photo: Boxun Liu/Flickr

The University of Bristol (UoB) has seemingly backtracked on its decision to sack 84 temporary workers, after announcing they will instead be paid through the government’s furlough scheme. 

An email sent to staff last Thursday said the university would now ‘honour the assignment you had in place to the original end date.’ The Cable understands that most of the staff had been contracted until the end of April. 

The UoB had announced in late March that 84 Temporary Staffing Service (TSS) employees would have their contracts ended early, defending its initial decision by saying that government guidance was unclear on whether TSS staff were eligible to be furloughed.

The decision triggered a public backlash, with many pointing out that the government’s Job Retention Programme, aka the Furlough Scheme, clearly covers temporary workers on zero hour, fixed-term and flexible contracts. The government measures ensure employers can claim a grant covering 80% of the wages of a furloughed worker – up to £2,500 per month for three months.

A petition calling on the university to furlough staff instead of sacking them amassed over 2,000 signatures. Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire wrote to Vice Chancellor Hugh Brady requesting clarity on the decision. Brady was paid £382,000 in 2019. The Cable understands that trade-union representatives from Unison met with the university last week to lobby on behalf of staff.

One worker thanked the Cable for its coverage, saying “the uni has u-turned, and your article no doubt played a big part in making this happen.”

At a time when lots of people in the city have been forced to seek financial support, one laid-off worker joined the tens of thousands in the queue seeking Universal Credit. He said it was next to impossible due to unprecedented demand from others that have been left without work.

Some employees still left vulnerable

While some temporary employees welcomed the news that they would now receive “normal pay for the duration of the assignment period”, accommodation office worker Barry Dolan was baffled to learn that he would not. The university emailed him to explain he was not eligible because he had started his latest contract after the 28th February.  Employers can only claim for furloughed employees that were on their PAYE payroll on or before 28 February 2020. However Dolan says he has been on the payroll since 2016 working on different contracts. 

“I was working up until 5pm on the 28th February,” says Dolan. “And then after the weekend on 2nd March, I went back to do a job in the same team on a new contract, and now the university says I’m not eligible to be furloughed! When my contract started shouldn’t matter – I’ve been on the uni’s payroll for years.”  

Other temporary staff will have to wait until after the university’s two-week Easter Break to learn if they will be furloughed or can return to work.

Although grateful for the university’s U-turn, maintenance worker Helen Rockliff expressed frustration at the university’s decision not to extend her contract. Rockliff and colleagues will be furloughed until the end of April when their contracts originally ended. This is despite Government guidance that employees on fixed term contracts can have their contracts ‘renewed or extended during the furlough period without breaking the terms of the scheme’ in order to protect their income.

“In normal circumstances my contract would likely have been renewed or I could have got a different job from the temporary service,” said Rockliff. “I can’t understand why the university won’t commit to this and protect us for the long run, at no cost to them.”

The Cable has contacted the University of Bristol for comment.

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  • Sam says:

    COO Robert Kerse suggested during a live stream on the University’s coronavirus response that he didn’t want to ‘waste a good crisis’. There are hundreds of staff across the institution whose contracts end – support staff, teachers, researchers – who still don’t know if they will be made unemployed either at the end of the month or at the end of June. Uni management are not covering themselves in glory here.

  • kate hayward says:

    Im on a fixed term contract till end of July, at which time I would normally go back to the TSS for further work. Ive worked at the University for 3 years now but have not been given any help or information about being furloughed. Managers are not advising employees how to find advise on what to do – mine basically said you contract is ending and that’s that. Hers however has mysteriously been extended. Unfair treatment based on your grade it seems.

  • Alex says:

    This has happened at UWE as well with no prospect of being furloughed.

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