Hartlepool nursery boss speaks out following minimum wage ‘naming and shaming’

Sharon Birch, director and owner of Footprints Learning for Life Ltd.
Sharon Birch, director and owner of Footprints Learning for Life Ltd.

A Hartlepool nursery boss has spoken of her ‘devastation’ after her company was highlighted for failing to pay workers the minimum wage.

Footprints Learning for Life, based on Tees Street, was one of a list of North East firms named by the Government for not paying the living or minimum wage to their employees.

Footprints staff. (L-R) Nursery nurse and cook Allison Young, nursery nurser Andrea Dennis, company director Sharon Birch, nursery nurse Joanne Sanderson, deputy manager Jo Hoggarth, student Melishia Caygill.

Footprints staff. (L-R) Nursery nurse and cook Allison Young, nursery nurser Andrea Dennis, company director Sharon Birch, nursery nurse Joanne Sanderson, deputy manager Jo Hoggarth, student Melishia Caygill.

Footprints failed to pay £339.85 to four workers, but now company director Sharon Birch has explained how Footprints never knowingly paid any staff less than the minimum wage.

Mrs Birch, 51, said the sum was a result of allowing workers to purchase additional uniform from their own wages and taking lieu time when requested instead of pay.

“We hold our staff in the highest regard and we have worked really hard over the last 11 years to be a good employer in this town,” she said.

“We have allowed staff to accrue time off, at their request, so they could take it off when they chose, rather than be paid overtime for it. 
“They could of course, elect to be paid for it if they chose.

“We have since found out that this accrued time has to be taken within the month it was worked.

“Because of our aim to be flexible and to support staff, it meant we technically underpaid some staff members on rare occasions, as it meant that they weren’t paid for hours worked during the month they worked it, even though they got the exact amount of time back at their own requested time, and all hours worked, or taken as leave, were paid at the correct rate.”

Mrs Birch, a mum-of-three, took on the company 11 years ago after leaving her job as a police officer dealing with child protection.

The company, which received an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report last year, employs 40 staff aged between 16 and 69, who Mrs Birch says are ‘very supportive’ of the company.

Mr Birch added: “We also allowed staff to purchase additional uniform on top of that which we supplied.

“Because uniform is a requirement of their job, it transpires that we cannot take payment from them.

“A polo shirt with our logo was purchased at cost price for £8.25 which meant a staff member who paid that amount was technically £8.25 short in their wages, which had the effect of putting them under the minimum wage for that month.

“Had we insisted that the uniform we provided was sufficient, and not allowed staff to purchase more, then this would not have occurred.”

This week more than 350 employers nationally have been named as the Government publishes its largest ever list of offenders.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy named those businesses who underpaid 15,520 workers a total of £995,233.

As well as recovering arrears for some of the UK’s lowest paid workers, HMRC issued penalties worth around £800,000.

For the first time, the list includes employers who failed to pay eligible workers at least the new National Living Wage rate, which is currently £7.20 for workers aged 25 and over.

Mrs Birch states the £339.85 was the amount they had to pay to staff, even though they had already had the time back in lieu, plus the fine levied.

She added: “We are devastated to find that this error was made in an honest-held belief that we were working to support our team. 
“We had no idea that anything we did flouted the regulations and this is devastating to us.”