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Coronavirus Kent: Staff at Nourish school catering company laid off amid government retention scheme confusion

Staff at a catering company which operates in schools across Kent have been laid off amid the coronavirus outbreak, with the company claiming it's due to lack of clarity on how the government's retention scheme works.

A "significant number" of Nourish Contract Catering employees received a letter last week stating due to the closure of schools, staff would be laid off until the end of June.

Nourish says it has not been given clear guidance on how to access the government grant
Nourish says it has not been given clear guidance on how to access the government grant

The company says it is impossible at this stage to say how long the lay-off will last.

Employees will be paid up until the date the letter was sent and are entitled to receive a statutory guarantee daily payment of £29 for five days.

Nourish advises staff they may want to claim benefits during this time.

Although bosses are aware of the government's pledge to support businesses who retain staff - by offering to pay 80% of the wages of those kept during the outbreak - they say there are not enough details about the scheme yet to warrant them enrolling.

The letter reads: "At the moment, no details are known as to how the scheme will operate. Therefore, we cannot give you any commitment or further information at this stage."

Schools have been ordered to shut to curb the spread of Covid-19 but some remain open to children of key workers
Schools have been ordered to shut to curb the spread of Covid-19 but some remain open to children of key workers

One employee who works in the Ashford area and does not wish to be named says "everyone is so confused - some people are getting different letters from others and it just seems like they don't really care".

The single mum added: "I tried contacting my boss last week to find out what was going on and got no response for four days.

"I then got an email saying I was being laid off and I don't actually know what I'm going to do - there's such a long wait for benefits. Luckily I did a big shop before we found out but after this month's pay runs out I genuinely don't know what I'm going to do.

"They've treated everyone quite badly and are not a kind or caring company. They haven't even been kind enough to send everyone the same information - we are all telling each other what we know over Facebook."

Another employee claims the staff she works with were originally told they were going to get 80% of their wages in an informal WhatsApp group.

She said: "How can you make such a major mistake with people's lives? The letter seemed very rushed.

"We are the front line workers making sure children are getting fed and they didn't even say 'thank you for all your hard work'.

"There are people I work with who are single mothers and will find it hard to provide for their families."

Since then, the company has sent out a second letter, with a more detailed explanation of the situation.

"How can you make such a major mistake with people's lives?"

It reads: "We find ourselves in a place that none of us could have ever imagined. Most of the country is now in lockdown with the population being asked to stay at home.

"With most of our schools closed and the loss of all our income we were left with some very difficult decisions to make."

It goes on to say once the company has secured "clear guidance on how to access the grant" bosses hope they can furlough people's employment.

The letter ends by wishing families stay safe and that they hope to see everyone very soon.

However, as the Kent employee states, this does not change that people are without wages.

She said: "I'm much happier they have now apologised but people still don't know what to do.

"Luckily, my husband is able to work from home with full pay and so we should be all right for the next couple of months, but after that, it's going to be extremely tight and we're really going to struggle.

"Some other staff I know won't be able to pay their bills."

The mum-of-three says she is reluctant to sign up for Universal Credit if she can help it as she's claimed benefits before and says "it can be more trouble than help", with long wait times and confusing systems.

She has contacted her mortgage company and should hopefully be getting a three-month break, which will help with finances.

She added: "There will unfortunately be a lot of bad feeling when we return to work, but we'll have to just try to suck it up. We don't want the company to fold."

A spokesman for Nourish said: "We understand our staff are worried, as we all are at the moment.

"We have been listening to everyone's concerns and it's important that we do this on a one to one basis, so we are unable to provide any comment on individual cases.

"Many of our clients have closed and are unable to pay us, so whilst lay off was not a decision taken lightly, we cannot maintain full pay at present.

"No-one has lost their job and we will be keeping the options under review with the aim of minimising the impact it has on our valued and hard-working team, and we are grateful for their patience during this very difficult time.

"For now, we are doing our bit in the crisis by ensuring that the children of key workers still get school meals, as well as the medically vulnerable in care homes."

Read more: All the latest coronavirus news

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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