An employee of Unicus – a company wholly owned by the University of Sheffield – is calling for furloughed employees to be paid in full during the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Pat’ works for Unicus, which employs staff in outlets such as the library cafés, and released an anonymous statement, praising the company for taking up the Government subsidy to cover 80 per cent of wages during lockdown, although put the success down to the Unite the Union branch on campus.

However, she also called for Unicus to go one better, and pay 100 per cent of wages, as Sheffield Students’ Union and the University of Sheffield have both committed to in recent weeks.

“I still have to pay 100 per cent for food, rent and bills while my landlord gets to enjoy a three month mortgage holiday. I remain liable for rent on reduced wages. 100 per cent was a struggle but 80 per cent feels impossible,” she said.

“I wish I were lucky enough to be able to devote 100% of my time and energy to my degree but must work to cover the costs associated with being a student in a for-profit model of education.

“Now I’m being told to take a wage cut which puts me below minimum wage for my age group! Are we 20 per cent less valuable than those employed by the students union or by the University themselves?”

In a statement given to Forge Press, Unicus said they had been communicating with the USDAW trade union, but this campaign, for Unicus staff to be paid their full wages during the COVID-19 pandemic, is being spearheaded by Unite the Union on campus.

Read more: Unite claim ‘victory for workers’ after Sheffield Students’ Union agree to pay casual staff full wages until Easter break, after coronavirus shutdown

Harriet Eisner, regional officer for Unite, said: Unite has been working with the Sheffield University and Students’ Union managements to ensure that all their employees are looked after throughout this Covid-19 period. We have focussed much of our attention on the many casual workers employed on the University sites.

“Zero hours contract workers are the least protected group of workers and we acknowledge the fact that both the Students’ Union and the University managements have risen to the challenge and agreed to pay their casual workers 100 per cent pay on furlough.

“It cannot possibly be right that Unicus – an off-shoot company ostensibly run by University personnel operating on Sheffield University premises – should be allowed to pay workers who are doing the same jobs as their Students’ Union and University counterparts, less.

“This is plain wrong. The University should be ashamed that Unicus workers are being treated so shabbily. They are the Cinderellas of the University workforce.

“We will continue to campaign for Unite members working for Unicus until Unicus does the right thing and gives parity to Unicus workers.”

However, Unicus argued that they have been communicating with workplace trade union representatives regularly, and that they had expressed their satisfaction with the company’s handling of the matter.

“Almost all retail outlets and operations run by Unicus have closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” a spokesperson for Unicus said.

“The company has taken the decision to furlough staff using the support made available by the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to protect jobs while Unicus’s income has all but ceased.

“Unicus has a sole trade union recognition agreement in place with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), who have been kept fully informed throughout this process. USDAW officials have informed the company that they are happy with the arrangements put in place to protect jobs and with how quickly these were communicated.  

“Unicus has also held an employee consultative committee meeting to reassure staff that its objective is to protect jobs longer term, to explain its approach and to give the opportunity to raise any concerns.

“Unicus will continue to support staff to the best of its ability during these exceptional times and is exploring whether there is scope for a hardship fund to be created to support those staff who may experience particular financial difficulties.”

Read more: Unite the Union call for improvements to Sheffield SU casual staff sick pay

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