Concerns raised over disaster response as thousands of EA staff walk out

Environment Agency workers have walked out today in an escalating dispute over pay that trade union UNISON has warned may decrease the agency’s ability to cope with disaster response.

Among the thousands of workers striking over pay for the first time in the EA’s history are river inspectors, flood forecasting officers, coastal risk management officers, sewage plant attendants and staff at the Thames Barrier.

The UNISON members will walk out between 8am and 5pm today, but according to the union officers have agreed to step in wherever there's a threat to life or property.

This comes after a period of industrial action short of a strike, where workers from both UNISON and PROSPECT refused to do voluntary overtime or work beyond their role in the lead up to Christmas.

The decision to take strike  action was taken after squeezed budgets have seen increasing pressures on staff, according to strikers, and wage rises have not reflected the cost of living, with salaries falling by more than 20% compared in real terms since 2010, according to UNISON.

EA employees were given a 2% pay rise, including a £345 payment this financial year, but for the previous year the majority of staff had a pay freeze and received nothing at all.

There are now severe staffing shortages across the whole of the EA  as a result, according to UNISON, which has said the agency’s ability to cope with disasters is under threat.

Currently there are 71 flooding alerts in place for England where flooding is expected, and 100 where flooding is possible. These have been issued via an automatic flood alert. However,an Environment Agency insider has warned that these are notoriously less reliable than manual alerts.  

UNISON warned that ministers must invest in staff or communities will face long-term risks. EA workers perform a wide range of essential roles like managing threats in flood-prone areas, maintaining sea defences, monitoring and tackling pollution spills in rivers and on land, and even ensuring radioactive material for life-changing medical treatment is handled safely.

On Monday, the EA’s chief executive James Bevan ended a rousing speech at the University of East Anglia with a call for listeners to join the EA, if they are “interested in building a better world”, without alluding to the challenges the body is currently facing.

At a separate event on the same day in Andover, the new EA chair Alan Lovell reportedly denied that morale is low at the Environment Agency, with attendees raising concerns that the chair hasn’t been properly briefed on the issues facing the body.

On his decision to strike, an EA worker told UNISON that “the constant erosion of living standards has eroded morale”.

He said: “The agency can no longer recruit the people it needs to protect the environment. Existing staff care deeply about water quality, pollution and flooding but as our chief executive says, 'you get the environment you pay for'."

Last week, cabinet ministers met several unions representing public service workers in a range of sectors facing industrial disputes but, according to UNISON, there were no talks between environment secretary Thérèse Coffey and unions to discuss the ongoing difficulties and the growing dispute.

UNISON head of environment Donna Rowe-Merriman described Coffey as “missing in action” during these talks, and suggested that the EA rather than the central government should liaise with workers over pay.

She said: “Communities up and down the country are at huge risk without the services Environment Agency employees provide. Staff are simply fed up with being taken for granted. This neglect cannot continue.

“Years without any wage increase or pitiful pay rises well below the cost of living, have taken a huge toll. Experienced workers are quitting in large numbers for better wages elsewhere and roles can’t be filled.

“The employer is sympathetic to the need for improved wages. But managers are powerless to act unless the government improves funding and allows meaningful negotiations to take place.”

“Climate change is making extreme weather all the more common, so sitting back and allowing the situation to deteriorate, without the staff to tackle the growing problems isn’t an option.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We have contingency plans in place to sustain critical operations, including responding to flooding and other serious incidents.

“Due to ongoing flood risk on the Somerset Levels, the EA and unions have jointly agreed that union members will support the critical incident response.”