HOPES of giving 170 of the poorest paid county council workers a decent living wage could be in tatters – with bosses fearing a multi-million pound legal challenge from school staff.
Worcestershire county council is considering handing all in-house workers the current official living wage of £7.45 an hour as a guaranteed minimum.
At the moment 170 employees including clerical staff, cleaners, trainee archivists and certain admin workers earn less than that, with a rise costing taxpayers £240,000 a year.
But a new report says the move could result in legal challenges from school workers, where about 300 people earn less than the living wage. Bumping all school employees up would hit taxpayers by another £750,000 a year – and any future High Court challenges could lead to millions in back-dated compensation.
The report says the council is “in legal terms, deemed to be the employer”. The council is already under huge financial pressure and is slashing 650 jobs by 2017, as well as cutting £20 million annual spending.
The ruling Conservative cabinet will make a decision by April, with council chiefs saying any decision is now far from certain.
Councillor David Thain, cabinet member for transformation and change, said: “The council is always looking at ways to implement improved conditions, but adopting the living wage is now far more complex than it first seemed.”
Because of government legislation, including the Equality Act 2010, councils up and down the country have found it almost impossible to defend High Court challenges on equal pay in recent years.
Birmingham City Council is forking out £757 million for pay claims between 2006 and 2012, following a court ruling in favour of 170 women staff.
The Act also says claims can be lodged by school staff using “non-school based employees” from their local authority for suitable comparisons.
Any claims could only come from staff at maintained schools, and not academies.
Sean Devlin, the head teacher of Blessed Edward Oldcorne Catholic College in Worcester, said the school decided three weeks ago to pay everyone the living wage as a minimum. “It will affect about 20 people – we decided that as a school, it was the right thing to do,” he said.
The minimum wage, which all employees must receive by law, is £6.19 an hour.
It is different from the living wage, which is calculated independently according to the basic cost of living.