HUNDREDS of civil servants staged a walkout over a row about changes to sickness rules.
More than 300 tax office workers at Waterside House, Wearfield, Sunderland, took a mass extended lunch break from 11.30am to 1pm.
Members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union voted to take the industrial action, after a dispute with managers at the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) contact centre.
The policy reduces the length of time and number of days an employee can be off sick – before tax office bosses can consider taking action against them – from 10 days to five, and from five occasions to three.
Union bosses fear this could result in more members being dismissed more quickly for poor attendance due to illness.
They also claim that since the department was formed in 2005, HMRC has reduced staff numbers by 30,000, closed more than 200 tax offices, and intends to reduce the workforce by a further 10,000 by 2015.
The disgruntled Wearside public sector workers joined more than 55,000 tax offices workers across the UK, who walked out this week in protest at the new rules.
Richard Spokes, PCS Northumberland and Durham branch organiser, said: “Our members are off sick because they are too ill to come to work, not because they want to be off sick.
“HMRC needs to focus on the wellbeing of staff, not beating our members with a big stick to make them come into work when they are too ill to do so.
“HMRC needs to concentrate on the causes of sickness, rather than disciplining the most vulnerable members of staff.
“The majority of sickness is due to stress and depression.
“There has been an improvement in the figures as people are coming into work sick.”
HMRC chiefs said an average of 10.07 working days have been lost per employee for 12 months to the end of November, against a department target of nine.
A spokeswoman said: “HMRC is disappointed with the decision to disrupt the working day, and will do everything it can to maintain services to the public.
“HMRC will continue to talk to the unions to address their concerns regarding this change.
“The wellbeing of our staff is of paramount importance.
“However, HMRC’s attendance record must be tackled urgently in the interests of both staff and customers.”