Eastbourne charity workers left ‘fuming’ by redundancy handling

Five Eastbourne charity cafe workers who were made redundant through Covid say the whole situation has been a ‘nightmare’.
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The five staff members were made redundant from the JPK Project, a charity based in Old Town which works to provide training for adults with learning disabilities.

The staff say they were told the charity café was shutting until 2021 due to Covid, so said they found it ‘really upsetting’ to learn the café reopened on October 7n with a new team of staff. However, JPK Project founder Jill Parker denies that 2021 was ever given as an opening date.

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The charity café - previously called the Palm Court Tea Room and now called The Old Town Café – is a place where staff, volunteers and students can undertake hospitality training.

The Old Town Cafe SUS-201028-105256001The Old Town Cafe SUS-201028-105256001
The Old Town Cafe SUS-201028-105256001

Prior to lockdown, the five members of staff worked in the café, some of whom say they have supported and worked for Jill Parker for many years.

A spokesperson for the staff said, “We were getting more and more people in, it was going amazingly, the food was fab, we had a great team, then Covid came.”

The cafe shut in March along with the rest of the hospitality industry due to a nationwide lockdown.

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Staff say they were furloughed until July 8, when they say out of the blue they all received emails informing them they would all be made redundant on July 31.

They say they were told the reason for the café closing was that after risk assessment was undertaken, the safety of the students could not be guaranteed at the current staffing levels. 

The staff say there was no consultation beforehand, and they were never given the opportunity to put forward thoughts and ideas to avoid the closure.

As well as this, the staff believe they should have been invited to at least one individual meeting with the employer to discuss the nature of the redundancy.

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The staff say phone calls to board members – after the redundancy email went out – were unanswered, and they were told to only make contact by email, which they say went unanswered too.

The staff say they still don’t understand why it happened.

The spokesperson said, “We just wanted answers, we felt like we had done something wrong.

“It would have been nice if the board just took the time to talk to us before making the decision.”

They say there were also many issues with holiday pay and wages, which were not resolved until the end of September.

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The spokesperson said, “We had to fight for our money, and even then, we didn’t get what we expected.”

Staff say the whole process has caused them a lot of stress – with two struggling with their mental health as a result.

They say what made matters worse, and seemed to contradict the redundancy email sent out about the risk to the students, was that the café reopened earlier this month (Octber 7).

On the JPK website it says the café is running with ‘a skeleton team’ and is ‘hoping to take back some employed staff too’.

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The staff spokesperson said, “They’ve opened up with a new name and new staff.”

The staff are also upset because they believe the charity was granted lottery funding to cover three years of wages just before lockdown, so they had been confident their jobs were safe.

Another issue upsetting the staff is, what they describe as “the waste of charity money” they helped raise to provide signage for the original Palm Court Tea Room last summer, which has now had to be replaced because of the name change.

Staff said, “It was not the way to go about it, the way it was done was wrong.”

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In terms of the timeline between closing, furlough ending, and the redundancy letter being sent out, Jill Parker, spokesperson for the JPK Project, said staff were notified at the start of July they would be made redundant as the charity could not cover the wages when furlough contributions from the government were set to reduce.

She said, “Future consideration had to be made for when the 80 per cent furlough from government was to be reduced in September and October and the JPK Project would have to pay the top up of wages.

“The JPK as a charity cannot expend charitable donations on staff wages, and without any profit having been made in the previous 17 months - as the previous staff management were employed for 17 months before furlough - we had no reserves to call upon.

“Sadly, and after much deliberation, the trustees had to make the difficult and regretful decision to make all the staff positions redundant.”

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She said staff were paid for all of July, and the first week of August.

Around the point of pay issues, Mrs Parker acknowledged the problems raised.

She said, “Regretfully, due to lack of adequate record keeping regarding holidays taken during the period, there were some discrepancies within the final payments which led to some bad feeling and much unpleasantness, but this has now been reconciled.”

When asked about the 2021 opening date that staff said they were told, Mrs Parker said how the redundancy letter said ‘the centre would have to remain closed for the foreseeable future’.

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Mrs Parker said how the charity took advice on how to deal with the redundancies correctly.

She said, “The JPK followed all the employment legislation and the directives in such matters.”

The lottery grant ‘Reaching Communities’ was to provide training and work experience to people with learning disabilities, she said.

Mrs Parker said, “The staff are under a misapprehension as to the use of the lottery grant that JPK has been awarded for three year funding for training programs to people with a learning disability in hospitality and catering.

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“This was made clear to the staff when they learnt that we had been successful with our application. The JPK cannot draw any of this funding until the lottery is assured and convinced that it will be safe for students to return, which is estimated now for April 2021.

“It was never intended to pay staff to run the café.”

Finally, in terms of the question of the name change, Mrs Parker said how this decision came from the advice of a marketing business.

She said, “We were advised that we should change the name to The Old Town Café for the benefit of Google analytics. All the new signage has been designed by Mick Cooke and produced by Ricochet Signs as a donation.

“The majority of our customers much prefer the change in name and it is certainly proving to be very beneficial.

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“In the last 10 days since opening, we have been extremely busy and it has been a pleasure to welcome back our regular customers and many new ones.

“We are indeed fortunate to have such a large space to enable social distancing at all times, which is reassuring for our customers.”

She said how the charity cafe is now open Wednesday-Sunday, and customers should book ahead in order to avoid disappointment.

Mrs Parker said the JPK have recruited a new ‘interim’ management team including an experienced executive chef and a front of house supervisor.

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She said, “We are fortunate they are both willing to work a one-week rolling contract to safeguard the JPK on any further likely lockdown scenarios.

“When the time is right we shall obviously be advertising and recruiting for permanent staff, where all applications will be welcome.”

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