UNISON has criticised Powys County Council after its staff members only learned of new working arrangements after reading a local newspaper.

The newspaper reported that 1,300 workers at the authority could regularly work from home on a permanent basis under a planned restructure of council operations.

UNISON Cymru Wales says the council has failed to properly engage with employees on the matter and says no account has been taken of the additional energy costs staff will incur, not to mention employee welfare.

A UNISON study of Welsh public service workers in April this year revealed the mental and physical health of a third of people working from home has deteriorated because of the new ways of working.

The same proportion of workers had not received any health and safety guidance about working from home.

UNISON argues new ways of working should be agreed mutually, with staff able to work from home if they choose, rather than any coercion.

The trade union also points to generally lower paid workers on the front line in their communities, care workers, refuse workers and many others, who by the nature of their jobs do not have a choice about whether they wish to work from home.

These workers shouldn’t be left behind in talks about new ways of working and employers need to think creatively about how greater flexibility can be offered in these roles too.

John Byrne, UNISON Powys County branch secretary, said: “It’s not fair to learn about your work future by press release. Powys staff deserve better having been at the forefront of keeping vital services running for local people throughout the pandemic.

“Not everyone has been equally affected by home-working during the pandemic. Some appreciated the flexibility it offered, but for many others it’s meant longer working hours and a decline in their work-life balance.

“The council could be a shining example to other employers across Wales if it pro-actively supported staff in the new ways of working, listened to their views and involved their trade unions.

“Agreement to home-working should be mutual and Powys must recognise the additional costs for heating and lighting home-working staff will bear. It is essential employee welfare is at the core of any proposals and staff are provided with health and safety guidance.

“The council must be wary of unfair divides opening up, between the generally low paid front-line workers, for whom working from home is not an option and better paid who may be able to choose where they work.”

A spokesperson for the local authority said: “The council does not recognise and is very disappointed with the comments made by Unison, which do not reflect all of the engagement which has taken place. There has been extensive internal messaging to staff about the ‘New Ways of Working’ project before the report to Cabinet on 21September. Staff were informed as long ago as 9 July that Cabinet would be asked to make a final decision on the proposals, in line with the Management of Change policy, prior to any individual conversations about workstyles for the future.

“There have also been extensive discussions with the council’s main recognised trade unions, including Unison, over the summer and the final report presented to Cabinet reflected many of the concerns raised during that period. The report also covered many of the issues raised in the Unison statement, including the importance of the mental and physical wellbeing of staff.

“Agreement to home-working will be mutual and the wellbeing of its staff will continue to be a top priority for Powys County Council.

“Three organisation-wide staff wellbeing surveys have been conducted since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the feedback has been used to inform the move to a new operating model. Staff who have been home-working, have also been provided with health and safety guidance and have been asked to carry out display screen equipment and workspace assessments, and pass the findings to their line managers.

“The council is following the Management of Change process and an agreed work programme, and representatives from Unison, Unite and GMB are all regularly invited to the council’s ‘New Ways of Working’ working group.”