The vulnerability of staff who rely on uncertain work and the goodwill – or otherwise – of private agencies and umbrella companies has been sharply exposed. When this crisis is over, then there has to be a concerted drive to organise directly-employed supply pools and put an end to this privatisation of supply cover.
As last term ended, details of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme were just being released. But, as yet, not all agencies have even guaranteed that they will use the scheme to at least provide ‘furlough pay’, based on 80% of previous earnings, to their agency supply staff. Even if they have, it's not yet at all clear how quickly the HMRC will start to process applications once its portal opens on 20 April.
Many supply staff therefore still don’t know whether they will get furlough pay at all and, if they do, how much their weekly income will be. Some have, out of financial necessity, applied for Universal Credit instead.
Even if successful, ‘furloughing’ still means a cut in income. For staff such as agency TAs, even 80% of full earnings is still a worrying cut to an already low income.
So, although ‘furloughing’ can provide an important ‘backstop’ for agency staff, particularly those who had no firm commitments for work next term, that must not be the starting point for union activists to defend their supply colleagues.
Why should supply colleagues be left facing wage cuts when most other school staff have had their salaries protected during school closure? Why are schools, MATs and Local Authorities trying to make savings at the expense of the supply staff that they would have already budgeted for hiring over the term ahead?
Even the Government has said in its advice on the Job Retention Scheme, “where employers receive public funding for staff costs, and that funding is continuing, we expect employers to use that money to continue to pay staff in the usual fashion”. The Local Government Association has also warned employers that staff covered by the Agency Workers Regulations may legally “be entitled to be paid”.
Supply staff mustn’t be left to battle for their incomes alone. Nor can this just be taken up as ‘casework’. We need a bold campaign at every level of the Union to demand employers and agencies act as they should, acknowledging those who do the right thing, but exposing those who don’t.
Branches and Districts need to immediately get in contact with their supply members, offering support and finding out which local schools and agencies need pressure applied to them.
School reps should urgently contact their Head to insist that they stand by supply staff who have been working at the school. School NEU groups should demand that they are paid fully and included in the rotas and other teaching arrangements that have been set up during school closure.