Row over furlough payments for Sunderland leisure staff

A union chief has cricicised city leaders for not topping up the wages of furloughed leisure staff.

Tuesday, 21st April 2020, 7:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd April 2020, 4:28 pm

Workers at Everyone Active (EA), which runs Sunderland’s gyms, fitness centres and swimming pools, have been stood down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Some other local authorities in the North East which also have contracts with EA have promised to make up the 20% difference from council coffers.

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Washington Leisure Centre is among the facilities operated by the joint venture between Everyone Active and Sunderland City Council

But Sunderland City Council (SCC) is not among them, which has prompted anger from union leaders, who accused city bosses of ‘disregarding’ their responsibilities.

In a statement, the city council stressed it ‘does not employ any leisure centre staff’ through its joint venture deal with EA.

It added: “The council though is working closely with the management team within Everyone Active to assess the impact of COVID-19 and how the council can provide help and support.

“We have also highlighted the impact of the pandemic on leisure services to the government.”

Councils for Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Scarborough are among those with contracts with EA which have said they will pick up the tab for workers’ missing 20% of pay.

‘Extremely stressful time’

Union chiefs say Sunderland’s joint venture deal with EA, the only one of its type between the company and an English local authority, means there is an even greater impetus for Wearside’s leaders to step in.

John Kelly, SCC branch secretary for Unite the Union, said: “Although SCC may not directly employ the employees within the 50-50 joint venture with EA, they still have a 50% interest in the organisation and are disregarding any responsibility they still have as a stakeholder.

“[Nearby] local authorities, who have EA running leisure facilities and do not even have the agreed 50-50 joint venture arrangement, have committed to financially support employees during this extremely stressful time by picking up the additional 20% of pay.”

The government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme officially launched on Monday, April 20, allowing businesses to claim for wages in an attempt to protect jobs.

EA runs several facilities in Wearside, including the Sunderland Aquatic Centre and the Silksworth Community Pool, Tennis & Wellness Centre.

In March, SCC announced it was shutting down all its leisure centres, as well as museums, galleries and ‘other public buildings’ to try and curb the spread of coronavirus.

Mr Kelly said the union was particularly concerned about the impact the decision could have for staff on minimum wage.

He added: “I’ve had many discussions with the leader of the council on this and we understand there is a financial burden, but hasn’t the Government committed to picking that up from a local government point of view?”

At the weekend the government said it would double its initial promise of £1.6billion to help local authorities through the outbreak to £3.6billion.

Martin Miles, area contract manager for EA, blamed ‘unprecedented times’ for the firm’s decision but hoped to protect jobs by accessing the furlough scheme.

He added: “We are in dialogue with Unite the Union and are having discussions with all our local authority partners about the support they are able to offer to pay the remaining 20 per cent of colleague salaries.

“We are communicating regularly with all our colleagues to keep them abreast of the current situation and will continue to do all we can to support them and get through this challenging period.”

Robert Oliver, leader of SCC’s Conservative opposition group, called for the council to give workers ‘as much support as possible’.

He said: “This is the first time a government has paid people’s wages, with approximately £40billion being put into the scheme, but taking a 20% pay cut will be difficult for many families in Sunderland if the lockdown goes on for much longer.

“The council has just received another £10million from the government in financial assistance and has £11million in usable general reserves, so there is scope for supporting all those employees who contribute to the city.”

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