Flood-prone areas in England will be relying on automated back-up systems for flood alerts and warnings on Wednesday, as Environment Agency (EA) workers strike over pay.
Systems that would normally be monitored by experienced staff, some of whom have been left relying on food banks as a result of the cost of living crisis, will be put on autopilot during the industrial action, after weeks of working to rule failed to bring the government to the negotiating table.
River inspectors, flood forecasters, coastal risk management officers, sewage plant attendants and staff at the Thames Barrier will all join the strike. Last November, the government granted staff a 2% pay rise, but their trade union, Unison, says since 2010 its members’ salaries have fallen by more than 20% in real terms.
One EA incident response worker told the Guardian that colleagues felt forced into taking action by the government’s refusal to move on pay. Workers in lower pay grades could be “out at three in the morning clearing the debris from rivers to keep the water from flooding into people’s homes”, then in the food bank by the afternoon.
“These people are critical workers that the UK depends on, and we think they deserve a bit more,” the worker said.
“Morale is rock-bottom. We’ve seen incredible numbers of people leaving the organisation, we’ve bled talent out into the private sector, into consultancies and things like that. You’re just left with a demoralised workforce who don’t necessarily have the experience, and it becomes a spiral down from there.”
With vacancies across the organisation, safety critical staff were holding together operations “by a wing and a prayer”, the worker said. “So far, we haven’t had too many problems with floodwaters but, ultimately, if it continues, we won’t be able to warn and inform the public of flooding in a timely manner.”
“The agency can no longer recruit the people it needs to protect the environment,” another worker said. “Existing staff care deeply about water quality, pollution and flooding but as our chief executive says, ‘you get the environment you pay for’.”
After weeks of heavy rain, and amid freezing weather, the EA was on Tuesday evening reporting about 70 flood warnings and more than 110 flood alerts. From 8am until 5pm on Wednesday its flood warning systems will be left unattended and warnings or alerts will instead be set to trigger automatically if instruments pass a certain threshold.
It is not the first time that the system has run automatically, after gaps in rotas during work-to-rule actions in December.
Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, has so far refused to sit down with unions to discuss the dispute, Unison said. “Staff are simply fed up with being taken for granted. This neglect cannot continue,” said Donna Rowe-Merriman, the union’s head of environment.
An EA spokesperson said: “As a public sector organisation, the Environment Agency remains bound by the pay policy of the government of the day. We have plans in place to minimise disruption to our essential work to protect the environment and respond to critical incidents.”