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Workers advised to allay concerns by seeking rights advice

10 March 2021

Local Advice Service Providers are appealing to anyone anxious or concerned about their workplace conditions or employment rights to seek advice and reassurance, as the fall-out from the Covid pandemic continues to impact on local businesses.

There has been much uncertainty for employees since the beginning of the health emergency with many facing reductions in hours, furlough and redundancy, resulting in high levels of anxiety and stress.

But help is available with extended advice services now being provided to address workplace issues as part of the Financial Inclusion Project, currently being delivered with support from Derry City and Strabane District Council and the Department for Communities. The project involves three Council funded advice agencies, and is part of Council's drive to combat local poverty and actively address concerns in relation to Welfare Reform and more recently Social Value Policy.

The Resource Centre in Derry is one of Council's three approved advice service providers, alongside lead agency Advice North West and Dove House. They have been inundated in recent months with additional calls from new clients seeking their assistance in claiming unemployment benefit or general advice regarding managing debt and available benefits.

Jude McKinney and his team have extended their opening hours to provide additional services during evenings and weekends to meet demand. They have seen a surge in employment related queries compared to this time last year, with issues expected to continue while businesses face into an uncertain future.

"Despite the extension of the furlough scheme until the end of May and a fourth SEISS grant for some self-employed, many workers still face uncertainty and fear for their employment future," Jude explains. "Sadly many businesses may find themselves unable to continue trading or may need to reduce their staffing levels. Many people continue to experience high levels of anxiety and stress, not to mention issues around Covid-19 due to the impact and devastation this is having on the general population. Health and safety at work is also concern for some people especially if and when lockdown measures are lifted."

The past year has seen increased levels of unemployment and although the pace of collective redundancy proposals has slowed in the past two months after a record number of redundancies in the six-month period between June and November, there were still 190 confirmed redundancies in January and 440 in December, Jude reveals.

"There has been some noticeable increase as regards employment related enquiries compared to this time last year, and the nature of employment enquiries differ slightly from those seen in the first months of Covid. Typical queries relate to people's options if certain monies are owed by their former employer such as redundancy, holiday and notice pay or querying eligibility to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).

"Other enquiries come from employees who may be more vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, such as agency workers and those on zero contract hours who are more likely to face job losses and lost income and want to understand their rights or seek help to defend them due to a patchwork system for employment enforcement." Any clients presenting with more complex employment issues can be signposted to specialist employment advisers.

Jacqueline Gallagher is Manager at Advice NW, where they offer a comprehensive range of assistance to help employees navigate through the complexities of employment law.

"We provide advice and guidance to employees and individuals, we do not advise employers or business organisations," she explains. "The main issues we are seeing at the minute are largely in the areas of furlough, health and safety at work (Covid-19 related), redundancy issues, maternity rights, holiday pay and annual leave carry over, workplace disputes and grievances/disciplinary issues.

"We would deal with all the following too - statutory and contractual employment rights, unfair dismissal and constructive dismissal, variation and breach of contract, discrimination, paternity rights, redundancy, TUPE, unauthorised deductions from wages, working time rights and issues, pursuing debts from insolvent employers or those who cease trading, leaving work, agency workers and workers' rights when under 18 years old.

"We can provide practical support, advice and guidance to employees or individuals on any employment law related matter and can advise on how to enforce rights. Where appropriate we can also advise on the Industrial Tribunal Procedure and explore the limited funding options for cases. We do not currently offer representation at court in employment tribunal cases as this is very resource intensive work but we are exploring the potential for this."

Anyone with any queries or concerns at all regarding employment rights can access free independent information and advice. For more on how to contact local advice service providers go to https://www.derrystrabane.com/Community/Advice-Services