Man ‘financially crippled’ because council-owned company won’t furlough him

A MAN has been ‘financially crippled’ after being denied access to the government furlough scheme by the company that runs bin collections in Oxford.

Chris Thornton, 33, of Bampton, West Oxfordshire, worked for Oxford Direct Services between September last year and March.

Mr Thornton’s six-month contract with the company, which is wholly-owned by Oxford City Council, ran out on March 31, and he had expected to start another job not long after.

But because of the lockdown, his new job was put on hold because of the economic downturn.

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Mr Thornton asked whether it would be possible to be placed on furlough payments by ODS, having been advised he was entitled to do so, but the company refused.

The former contract manager said he has not been able to fall back on the benefits system for help either over the last two months.

Mr Thorton said: “For a company whose motto is ‘Doing Good’ they have not done good by me as one of their employees.”

Oxford Mail:

ODS staff. The company runs bin collections in Oxford

Meanwhile, a member of the public who wished to remain anonymous has said the company is expected to make lay offs as a result of work lost during the pandemic.

In correspondence between Mr Thornton and ODS in March, the company said it was unsure if it would be able to take advantage of the furlough scheme because it was owned by a public body.

Further email correspondence from ODS in April suggested the same.

But at an Oxford City Council meeting in May, chief executive Gordon Mitchell said it had been confirmed that the council and ODS could take advantage of the scheme, and had furloughed hundreds of staff.

Government guidance has also suggested public sector bodies and companies owned by them can furlough staff who cannot be redeployed.

In April, the Citizens Advice Bureau confirmed to Mr Thornton his situation meant the company could conceivably re-hire him and immediately furlough him as his job contract had finished after February 28.

The government has encouraged employers to take this action for workers who have become stuck between jobs.

Unfortunately for Mr Thornton, a period of unemployment in 2019 before his job with ODS meant that he did not make national insurance contributions and is currently unable to claim Jobseekers Allowance or Universal Credit as a result.

He said: “The job I was meant to be going into has stalled. I don’t know if there will be a job at the end of it now. I was in a bad financial state going into ODS and now I am back to square one: financially crippled again.”

Mr Thornton has also contacted his local MP, Robert Courts, for assistance who has emailed the company.

In a reply received in April shared with Mr Thornton, the company suggested it was facing a dire financial situation due to the pandemic, and had terminated agency staff, contractors, and fixed term employees to mitigate losses.

Mr Courts has since sent a letter to the company requesting them to look again at Mr Thornton’s situation, but this has not yet received a response.

Oxford Mail:

Robert Courts. Picture: Ed Nix

Robert Courts MP said: “My understanding of the facts in this case is that there is no practical reason why Mr Thornton cannot be placed on furlough. I have made this point to his employer and it is disappointing that they have not done so. I will continue to offer all the support I can to Mr Thornton at this time.”

A spokeswoman for ODS said the company was not able to comment on individual cases, but then immediately commented on Mr Thornton’s case by saying it had answered his enquiry ‘on several occasions’.

ODS staff on furlough are having their payments topped up by the company to 100 per cent of salaries, up to £2,500 a month.

A member of the public who wished to remain anonymous has also contacted the Oxford Mail and claimed ODS was still employing some agency staff to fill in vacancies caused by sickness from the coronavirus.

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The ODS spokeswoman said: “ODS has continued to use a number of agency staff in order to keep critical services going where staff are absent for a number of reasons, including COVID and isolation – some of these are furloughed because they are shielded due to a medical condition.”

Another member of the public, who also wished to remain anonymous claimed ODS were planning on making redundancies as a result of losses sustained during the pandemic.

To this, the ODS spokeswoman said: “Like other businesses we have taken a severe financial hit – we are doing all we can to avoid job losses and we are confident that we can recover our business with hard work and workforce co-operation. “

As well as providing bin collections, construction work, and other services on behalf of Oxford City Council, ODS is contracted out to do work for other authorities and organisations.

Clients include Oxford Brookes and Oxfordshire County Council.

Oxford City Council is then able to make money from these contracts, with £1.3m coming back to council coffers in the 2018/19 financial year.