The Chief Executive of Sheffield Students’ Union, Jaki Booth, is facing criticism from casual staff after being caught making a derogatory comment about their pay during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A number of employees of Sheffield Students’ Union have told Forge Press that in a virtual roundtable for ‘core’ Sheffield SU staff on Friday 24 April, Booth said that they hoped a new Financial Support Scheme would only be used by staff facing financial hardship, because the SU are “not going to want to pay people to keep topping up their savings account for their trip to India when they graduate.”

The comment came just a day after Booth announced to all staff that those furloughed would be moved to 80 per cent of their wages, with ‘core’ staff topped up to the Foundation Living Wage of £9.30 per hour should this cut take them below that. However, no such commitment has been made to casual staff.

The comment was made in response to a question about the Staff Financial Support Scheme which will be in place for staff moved to 80 per cent of pay who are facing financial hardship. 

In response to the question about the scheme, Booth said: “We will have a lot of conversations about why we haven’t topped up casual pay.

“The answer is because we know that a large proportion of our casual staff simply don’t need 100 per cent; they’ve gone home to live with their parents, they’ve managed to get out of their rent agreements, we know that they don’t need those funds. 

“Therefore the Students’ Union can keep those funds, who does [sic] need it.

“But there are some of our casual staff and some of our core staff who cannot afford to pay the rent and cannot afford to eat, at 80 per cent. And that’s where we want the money to go. We will do anything we can to make sure the money goes to those people.

“Part of that needs to be some personal judgements about whether hardship is manageable.

“We’re not going to want to pay people to keep topping up their savings account for their trip to India when they graduate. That’s not going to be what we top it up for. We are going to top it up for rent and food and other essential costs.”

The scheme requires that staff demonstrate they have applied for help elsewhere such as the University Hardship Fund for student staff or Universal Credit for non-students, though Universal Credit applications are currently taking longer than five weeks to be processed.

Read more: Student staff express concern about Sheffield SU furlough announcement.

Booth apologised in the following roundtable, for casual staff, after a rep from Unite the Union raised the comment, though it is understood many staff in attendance were taken aback by Booth’s choice of words.

In the following roundtable, she said: “I am really sorry that I, in my haste in the last session made a comment that has been massively misunderstood and misinterpreted.

“I do know that many, many, many of our casual staff, whether they are staff or students, need their wages to pay to live. I know that, I’ve been working with Student Unions for many years and we do a lot of work to try and improve the financial situation for students in particular because we’re a Students’ Union.

“So please, please ignore any interpretation of what I said in that last meeting that is anything other than respectful for the incredible work you do for us.”

There are around 600 casual staff at Sheffield Students’ Union – the vast majority of whom are students working alongside their degree – and make up the workforce in outlets such as Bar One, Foundry, Interval and Our Shop.

One casual staff member, who is also a student, said: “After working at the SU for more than two years at various outlets and in my fourth year as a member, I find Jaki Booth’s comments regarding myself and my colleagues disappointing and insulting. 

“To hear this statement from a member of higher management demonstrates how out of touch they are with the people who make the Students’ Union thrive. 

“I was truly shocked to hear these comments. My wages go directly towards paying my rent, a cost which isn’t covered by the usual amount I receive let alone 80 per cent. 

“This is a worrying time and with the need to pay for basic needs such as rent, food, and bills the last thing on my mind is a trip to India.”

Another student staff member told Forge Press in confidence: “Hearing the remarks made by Jaki Booth, whether unintentionally or not, were extremely offensive to hear. 

“The assumption that a ‘trip to India’ is on anyone’s mind during this global pandemic is insensitive and ignorant.

“We are questioning why the spending habits of core staff have not been brought under the same scrutiny, further evidence of inequality within the staff base perhaps? 

“We want her to retract the comment and apologise for any offence caused and for the casual staff’s plight to be taken more seriously.”

Meanwhile, Unite representatives at the Students’ Union said that they have already written to Booth to raise the issue after a number of their members complained to them.

“We’ve had lots of Unite members get in touch to express their dismay and anger about the comments.  The comments were extremely unhelpful and we take issue with the false perception that casual staff are working just to earn some pocket money,” they told Forge Press.

“The numerous pieces of research we have presented to the Students’ Union’s Senior Leadership Team has consistently shown that the vast majority of casual staff are working because they need to, not because they want to save some money to go travelling.

“We have made our feelings clear to the Chief Executive and have written to ask her to apologise fully to all staff.  We are also asking the Students’ Union to now support our campaign, launched yesterday, which calls on the university to step in and guarantee 100 per cent pay for all staff on campus.”

On Friday, Forge Press published an article highlighting the concerns of casual staff following a statement released by Booth which said that the SU could no longer continue to pay 100 per cent of furloughed staff wages as they have been, and that they would be taking advantage of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme.

Booth said in the same statement that she and the three other Directors who make up the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) would “give back a proportion of our salary”, however it is unclear how much this would be.

Harry Carling, the SU Development Officer and Chair of Trading and Finance, said that the first donations from SLT’s wages were expected in the next few weeks.

SU President Jake Verity said: “Jaki and I have discussed the transcript of the meeting at length. Jaki regrets saying that a large proportion of our casual staff don’t need 100 per cent during these exceptional times; this was wrong and she has apologised for that mistake.

“In the first roundtable, Jaki gave an example of “saving for a trip to India” solely as an illustration of something that would not qualify for hardship. This was then referred to in the second meeting and unfortunately was misunderstood. She quickly addressed the issue, clarifying what she meant, and reiterating the appreciation and respect that she and the senior management of the Students’ Union has for the casual staff team.

“The Trustees and senior management regret that we have had to reduce pay for furloughed staff to 80per cent from May. It is the last resort as we need to save our very limited money to avoid losing more jobs in the months ahead. It was not an easy decision to take. 

“We understand that many staff will face stress through uncertainty during these extraordinary times and our new financial support scheme has now been launched to all staff. The purpose of the scheme is to prevent any member of staff falling into financial hardship as a result of this decision. I both urge and encourage anybody who needs to apply for the scheme, to do so.”

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