ATTACKS and threats on Jobcentre staff in Sunderland have almost tripled during the past year.
The latest figures spark concerns that workers are increasingly open to abuse from Wearsiders struggling in the current economic climate.
Staff at the city centre’s Jobcentre in John Street have suffered cuts and bruises after they were hit by irate customers, another was struck in the chest, while others managed to avoid injury by triggering alarms.
Police officers have also been assaulted after they were called to the centre while Jobsearch booklets have been used as missiles and thrown across the room. Property belonging to the Jobcentre has also been damaged on numerous occasions. According to a Freedom of Information request, during 2011 there were 58 incidents of verbal abuse and threats made against the Sunderland staff - which soared to 154 the following year.
Fears have been raised the problem is only going to get worse in the coming months as staff take the brunt of frustrations from those having changes made to their benefit entitlements.
Workers often have to deal with aggressive and intoxicated clients including some who have to be referred on to mental health support agencies and doctors.
One staff member told the Echo: “We’re getting a lot of people coming in who don’t understand about the changes that are happening as far as benefits are concerned. Because they don’t understand, they get angry and that anger is then taken out on the workers.”
Union representatives said the rise in cases goes hand-in-hand with falling staff numbers and increasing work pressures.
Julie Young, Public and Commercial Services Union regional organiser, said: “PCS take all incident reports seriously and investigates each and every case with management to ensure all control measures are in place to protect members in the workplace, however there are numerous factors that can contribute towards customer confrontation and dissatisfaction. DWP staffing levels have fallen by 20,000 since May 2010. This is a staggering 19 per cent fall in total DWP staffing in just two and a half years and PCS feel that this has resulted in staff being forced to focus upon speed of processing often to the detriment of customer service.
“The numbers of people relying on DWP services has not reduced in this period and the demand for our services remains as high as ever.
“Major changes to the benefits system, undermined by staff shortages, has led to excessive backlogs in processing claims within DWP. Continued reductions in the accessibility to the DWP services under welfare reform has left customers with little option other than to attend jobcentres for any DWP enquiries immaterial of whether the site is resourced or skilled to meet that customer expectation.
A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said: “We take all incidents seriously, and we actively encourage our staff to report these. We have robust measures in place to deal with claimant interactions, including specific control measures to minimise risk as far as reasonably practicable.
“In all of our Jobcentres, including Sunderland, all staff must undertake ‘Keeping Safe’ training before working with the public and complete ‘Personal Health and Safety’ training.”
Across the North East, the number of people out of work has risen by 12,000 over the first quarter of the year, according to figures released this week.