Fair pay demanded for VVS operators

Telecoms & Financial Services

Pay rates for those fielding 999 calls and a plethora of other public service call streams completely fail to reflect the increasing complexity and stress of the job and need revising upwards.

That was the verdict of CWU Annual Conference which unanimously committed the union to seek a grading assessment of a role which has become increasingly complicated in recent years, with operators now routinely switching between multiple call streams, all of which carry very different demands and expectations.

Proposing the grading review on behalf of members at BT Ventures Voice Services’ six UK call centres, Erin Massey of Northern Ireland Telecom explained: “The UK-wide public service they provide includes operator services at 100 and 155 (international), 999, Text Relay services for the hard of hearing and deaf, directory enquiries for the blind and disabled and also regular Directory Enquiries for 70-plus licensed operators and, more recently in Northern Ireland, the NI Direct Flooding Line.

“All these call streams have their own particular procedure, processes and targets, with the 999 service holding a 100 per cent target expectation with no exception because of the nature of the calls.

“One second you can be dealing with a critical 999 call where someone is in their most desperate time of need, then you flick into another call with a little old lady asking what time of day it is.

“Calls are so constant and relentless, with barely even the time to take a breath in-between – and a large percentage of these calls are extremely traumatising, abusive and stressful.”

Pointing out the profound emotional impact that tragic recent events, including Grenfell Tower and the Manchester Arena and London attacks had on VVS operators, Erin continued: “Thankfully those events are not so common, but that of car accidents, drownings, suicides, domestic violence and child physical and sexual abuse, to name but a few, are daily scenarios that leave a constant scar on the memories of advisers who are the first point of contact to all the poor people involved in these tragic events.

Emphasising that point, Tommy Queen of Scotland No.1 recalled: “On the morning of Grenfell I started at 6am and, although the disaster was beginning to wane, the stress our night operators had to endure due to the conflicting information from the fire authorities was hard to bear.

“Every operator can give instances of where we have been in stressful situations but the call that will live with me forever was several years ago when a primary school teacher who was driving to her work in Lincolnshire hit a patch of ice when coming to a level crossing, spun and was hit by a train.

”When the caller reached the car it was probably the most distressing moment in my time as an operator.”

Apart from the psychological impact of the job, Tommy stressed it had become exponentially more complicated because of both organisational and technological change.

“Where once we had three lines of business, today an operator is expected to perform the full range of calls, including emergency ones,” he explained.

“The biggest technological change has been in emergency calls where previously 95 per cent were from landlines. This figure is now 40 per cent and we now have mobile, VOIP calls, Telematic calls, REALRIDER calls, emergency SMS calls plus others to handle.

“This motion has been a long time coming,” he concluded.

Peter Pascale of Mersey Branch agreed, explaining how the job he conducts at Lancaster House in Liverpool, originally a Text Relay centre, has transformed beyond recognition.

“In the last couple of years we’ve been trained to do 999 calls and people in my centre have left because of the stress it involves,” he said.

“Anything you can imagine for which people have to call the police, the fire brigade, the coastguard or the ambulance service – we take these calls all day every day, literally call after call after call.”

Malcolm O’Brien of Lincolnshire & South Yorks told Conference: “Our people in VVS are constantly being told how valued they are and what an important job they do. BT – please show them that value by giving them a decent pay rate.”

Will Murray of Greater London Combined added: “When you look at what the police call operators are on it’s nearly twice as much as our member in VVS. The pay grade these people are on is nothing short of atrocious. They should be receiving an appropriate remuneration that reflects the stress and anxiety that is being put on them.”

Executive speaker Tracey Fussey agreed it was unjustifiable that VVS operators rank amongst some of the lowest paid people in BT.

“It’s not only the nature of calls they receive that is challenging, but also the need to adjust and react to the increasingly varied types of call that can present themselves upon the screen at any given time,” she insisted.

“The role and functions that currently take place in this customer-facing unit have clearly changed. We do believe that the role warrants re-evaluation in terms of a proper grading assessment.”