The recent case of a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) employee sacked for taking time off for illness illustrates a truth that the government does not acknowledge. Modern employment practices often appear to be incompatible with its aim of getting sick and disabled people off disability benefits and into work.
In this particular case it was reported that after working at the DWP for thirty four years, Ms Powell, who has a disability, fell foul of its sickness absence procedure, whereby formal action is taken against employees after eight days absence, or four spells of absence within a 12-month period.
‘Health problems meant that Ms Powell was frequently off sick. As some of her absences were related to a disability, her trigger point was adjusted from the usual eight to 12 days. However, Ms Powell later went over her allotted 12 days’ absence by a few days, and she was dismissed.’
A year earlier, a DWP whistleblower had revealed :
“Attendance management continues to get more draconian and sackings have become a regular occurrence: a recent guideline instructed managers to consider dismissal for staff off work for longer than 28 days regardless of the reason.”
So despite its own Disability Confident campaign, which calls on employers to “help improve employment opportunities for disabled people and retain disabled people and those with long term health conditions in your business”, the DWP itself seems unable to provide employment for people who may have long or frequent spells of illness. This would suggest that if you have, say, a long term fluctuating health condition, or a disability that requires frequent hospital appointments, you will find it very difficult to keep a job at the DWP.
Of course the DWP is not alone in this. We know that in some workplaces the pressure to attend even when very ill is overwhelming. At the Sports Direct warehouse, for instance, it wasreported that over a two year period, 76 calls for an ambulance had been made, with 36 cases classed as ‘life-threatening’ including strokes, convulsions and breathing problems. One woman gave birth in the toilets, and employees said they were too frightened to take time off when they were ill, in case they lost their job. The employment agency that supplied staff to the warehouse had a ‘six strikes and you’re out’ policy, where a strike could include being off sick, or taking ‘excessive or long toilet breaks’. Very few people with a long term health condition would find it possible to keep their job in these circumstances.
The reality is that in a fiercely competitive economy and austerity-driven government departments, there is very little room for anyone who has a long term health problem. Perhaps somebody in the government should do a little experiment. Try applying for jobs and declaring a long-term illness or disability which may require regular absences. See how easy it is to get a job.
Even Paul Maynard, a disabled Conservative MP who has in the past referred to critics of government policy as “extremists” has warned his own government;
“It is not until one gets out there and tries to find a job that one really discovers the existence of prejudice against the disabled in society…I was not expecting to encounter it when making job applications, yet I rapidly ran into it and I do not consider myself to have a particularly severe form of cerebral palsy at all.”
So it is difficult to say just how insulting is the government’s suggestion that people who receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because they have been found unfit to work by the DWP, are not getting jobs because of the ‘perverse incentive’ of the additional £30 per week they receive compared to a person on Jobseekers Allowance. Being on ESA is not a lifestyle choice.
The government needs to admit reality. It cannot itself find it impossible to employ people who have frequent spells of sickness absence, but punish sick people for not finding an employer who will accept them. It cannot aim to get a million people off disability benefits until it has ensured that there are employers who really will be prepared to employ them. And not ‘prepared’ in a Disability Confident, PR spin kind of a way, but with actual jobs which people will be able to keep even if their health does necessitate frequent absences. Until then, the policy seems guaranteed to push even more disabled people into absolute poverty.
Indeed, any policy which aims to get sick and disabled people into employment will be highly damaging if it removes support before properly addressing current employment practices, and making them fit for disabled people, rather than finding sick and disabled people fit to work in jobs that do not exist or that they will find impossible to keep.
The numbers of disabled people in ‘absolute poverty’ (unable to meet their basic needs) hasrisen steeply following welfare reforms. Yet in his most recent party conference speech Iain Duncan Smith said to disabled people, “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.”
This would seem to suggest that, until disabled people find a job in a highly problematic jobs market, the Secretary of State is content for them to remain in poverty, as he objects on principle to the idea of the welfare state providing an adequate income for them.
Here is a radical proposal. Why don’t we a) trust people and b) help people?
Why not take all the money that is currently being wasted on the disastrous Work Capability Assessment, which we know is costing more than it saves, and believe people when they and their doctors say they are not fit to work? We could spend that money on providing top quality specialised support for people who are looking for a job they can actually keep. And meanwhile, politicians, why not stop insulting people who are ill or disabled, and start supporting them? Why not stop implying that because people are on ESA and face more barriers to employment, they are any less talented, less aspirational, or less deserving of respect than anybody else?
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden