Clocked Off; Unemployment & Credit

a worker laying down tools and resting

Notes on unemployment and benefits in the United Kingdom.

Author
Submitted by Reddebrek on May 13, 2023

It's been almost a year since my road accident, I'm now doing much better, but there are still limitations and issues. Can't fault the care I received from the NHS or the people in my community who stopped to help me while I was lying in the road. Can't really say the same for the work system. Once I hobbled out of hospital and collected my belongings, I noticed a text message from the agency demanding to know why I hadn't arrived for my shift. I was on my way to work at the time, and the need to get to work was a factor as it was the only reason I was on the road when a cloud exploded on top of me. It came twenty minutes after I was due to clock on, which makes it the most timely communication I had from them. Work sucks, I know. Anyway, the next day while still on painkillers and in quite a bit of pain I was able to work through the messaging system and speak to one of the managers, my luck improved, it was the nice one who understood that we were human beings and would try to assist you when they'd overbooked, and you needed the hours. She was very sympathetic and clear my calendar for me, so I didn't have to put up with any more harassing texts or e-mails "why aren't you at work?", "When will you be back to work", and so on.

The agency kept me on the books for a month, but when I didn't magically grow a shiny new and fully functional ankle joint, they terminated the contract and paid me the holiday entitlement I had accrued. No fuss, no complications. And it's what I expected, being on zero hours for a manual labour agency. Could be worse, if I was a horse they would've shot me.

The one regret I had was that it killed off a series of blog post about factory work I looked forward to continuing. There is a draft of a final instalment about waste, but I don't know if I can finish it now. Oh, and it also meant that I had to go back to the Jobcentre, well technically I had never left. Despite being exhausted, I wasn't making enough consistently to go over the threshold to end my Universal Credit (UC)claim. Since Universal Credit replaced jobseekers allowance, you are allowed to earn an income while on it. The bad news is, that for every £ you earn, or your partner earns, they deduct 55p from it. And the deduction rate used to be higher. It actively disincentivises and punishes part-time workers. But the good news was, since I was working, I didn't have to interact with them at all. It was a purely automatic relationship, they simply looked at the payments from the agency account and took their cut. It was a pain on my end to work out my finances, though, having to check that the agencies hours matched mine and then calculating the deductions. But I didn't have to sit there while a stranger judges me for perceived idleness and constantly gets my name wrong, and asked you every time if you can drive. No, politely batting aside inane suggestions because the title on the job listing is a bit like a previous job I did years a go but is nothing like it, no attendance at a pointless "how to click on the apply now button" "Job training" course that's run by a shady private company that's charging billions per annum to get three people a job as temporary cover for a shop that's about to close in three months.

It was a kind of bliss. No matter how bad it got, lugging 20+kilo boxes of product from one side of a room to another, nor tantrums from supervisors because no one turned up for their cheerful attitude, and so on I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was finally free to apply for work I wanted or at least was capable of doing, and that it just took a steady appearance of an agency on my bank statements and a couple of work search notes in my "journal" was all it took to keep that never ending headache well a way from me.

Getting thrown from my metal horse at 25 mph put an end to that relief. I informed the jobcentre of my change in circumstances, to use the official euphemism, and was immediately booked for a meeting. While I was still confined to the house. I contacted them again and explained the situation, and was told it absolutely had to be done in person if I wanted to keep receiving payments. Which I now depended on heavily. So, I did get them to reschedule for a few days, and on the appointed hour I was able to get a relative to drive me down to the jobcentre*, and I hobbled into the building. As soon as they saw me, all of a sudden everything changed. They were apologetic and sympathetic to my injury, they brought a chair to me, and then agreed without fuss to cancel in person appointments, I would have remote contact from that point on until my condition improved so that I could physically travel to the office.

This was a farce, but it could've been worse, I was fully expecting them to dig their heels in, I had managed to come into the office once, so surely I could do it again, after all it's on the ground floor in a building with no steps at the entrance and a disabled toilet, what is the problem? I was expecting that treatment, because I know people who were treated that way. There are many horror stories of disabled and injured people being caught in just such a trap. My own mother lost her disability support payments because she could raise her arms to shoulder height, her back is still cracked up from that fall, but she can lift her arms up for a bit, so, y'know.

So, on reflection, my treatment was better than average, I had to go to a building to tell them I couldn't come to the building. That is not a joke, nor is it an exaggeration, I had told them this information over phone, over e-mail and messaging service, and this information was ignored. I had to physically show them the results of my roll on the tarmac. I did everything short of show them the shoes stained with blood and the scars underneath my bandage. And for what reason? They aren't idiots, they're clueless about work that isn't in the Civil Service, but they aren't fools, they know human beings need legs to walk and that broken joints take a long time to sort out, if ever. The only reason for their behaviour I can think of is that they didn't trust me and thought I was lying, and had managed to somehow forge doctors notes**, or there's a procedural policy mandating employees to treat their "customers" - which is what the Department for Work and Pensions calls claimants - with contempt and suspicion until overwhelming proof is provided.

If I sound bitter about this, it's because I am, I was still on the painkillers the hospital gave me, lurching about like some creature from a mad toymakers work shop, a puppet with strings attached in the wrong places. Anyway, anyway, anyway, I was now free to focus on my recovery, except I still had to make time for weekly remote meetings, either video or phone. Okay, why? My ankle was busted, and officially no one was disputing that any more, I was also housebound based on my remote location. It was agreed by everyone, including the authorities of the DWP that I was not fit for work and would not be for quite a while. So what was the point of these meetings? Well, based on the content of the meetings, it was like running into an old acquaintance while waiting for a bus that would arrive soon. Some pleasantries, small talk about what we'd done during the week, and some well wishing about bad news. I can only assume that, given how insistent they were, that these meetings take place and how nothing of substance happened in them, and how they were adament that these be video calls until the third week in a row that they didn't work***, that this was part of the regime of monitoring.

And that's something that I feel gets lost in the popular debate around benefits. There's a popular misconception about benefits, especially unemployment benefits. The popular or if you will permit, the Tabloid image of unemployment benefit is that its free money. If you're on UC you just get it, and you can take it easy, if you haven't got a job within say a month of losing your old one, you aren't interested in one and are just getting a free ride. What these people fail to account for is that by taking UC or any benefit you have to enter a contract with an arm of the government. This contract in effect means you agree to transfer many of your life decisions over to a bureacrat whose main goal is to fulfill their own work targets, not look out for your best interests.

For example, you might find it odd that I contacted the DWP immediately after my accident, well, that is because if I did not inform them in a "timely manner" that could be grounds for sanctioning. You are obligated to report nearly every part of your life to the DWP in exchange for a monthly payment. Your financial history, your location, your health, before the accident when I had just opened my claim I was in therapy with the regional mental health provider, they wanted to know about that. Not just reporting my therapy sessions but some of the staff asked me questions about it. I had to politely point out that this was confidential information, and I had to be polite because behaviourial misconduct is also grounds for sanctioning.

If I wish to go on holiday (on public money, how dare I) I am legally entitled according to the DWP contract to have one, but, I must inform the DWP of this holiday, where I'm going how long will I be away etc, and get permission from a work coach, the work coach can decide to not allow it. Or, as is more common, agree provided a do some performative "job searching" while I'm away. I'm an adult, and yet I have to run everything past a person who is not my guardian and is nothing to me for permission, lest I encur a penalty. You aren't monitored 24/7, but you have agreed that this service can in fact monitor 24/7 should they beleive it to be necessary.

It's an horrific experience. I have been in and out of unemployment offices over the years on many types of benefit scheme. I have seen multiple people breakdown in tears, attend a meeting while obviously in great pain and distress, I have seen people I recognised as local rough sleepers have to stand there and get lectured about how their are in fact "jobs available" while everyone present knows full well the only places hiring need an address to proceed to the next part of the application. I've seen people who cannot speak the English get forms and a pen shoved in their faces because they keep saying things that sound a bit like yes****. Its not a Jobcentre, there are no jobs there, its a misery centre, the lamentations echo down the halls and the bad vibes ooze out the walls and crawl out the door. Its and administrative centre full of the confused and the depressed and desperate. Whose many problems are compounded and exercabated by well meaning do gooders who are clueless about the working conditions in the areas they're assigned and bitter jobs worths who value a generous pension scheme over treating their neighbours like human beings. The tragedy is that in many cases both types are often represented by the same person.

Comparing my experiences with the Jobcentre I think I've had an above average experience with them, I have so far managed to stay above the water, both finanacially and emotionally. I have been since January classified as fit for "some work" and am now actively looking for work again. Well, I had been applying for work before that, but that was on "my own initiative" to use another DWP euphemism. So far, no luck. So, I guess we'll see how long the patience of the DWP lasts*****.

* If you're curious, at the time I was living on the edge of the town, about a mile a way from the centre where the jobcentre is located, my objection isn't based on not wanting the pain and discomfort, though there was plenty of that, it had just been over a week, I literally was physically incapable of walking that far with both crutches and a walking boot at that time.

** If you're ever in a similar position absolutely make sure you get a doctors note specifying you're unfit for work in as clear language as possible, and make sure you renew before the first note expires, they will notice any gaps and question it.

*** One of the benefits of living on the edge of nowhere, mobile internet is unreliable.

**** I especially remember one case of this where someone spoke up after that person left and was told by the work coach that they didn't need an interpretor because they hadn't asked for one!

*****Of course, the Reddebrek newswire is a free service, and if we want to keep it that way, ahem.

Comments

adri

11 months 2 weeks ago

Submitted by adri on May 14, 2023

Wish I could get a hold of Tuli Kupferberg's 1001 Ways to Live Without Working. Though considering that the first listed way is simply "Die," I doubt some of its advice is all that serious/useful... Anyway, interesting read and best of luck

Red Marriott

11 months 2 weeks ago

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 15, 2023

Very good description of the reality beyond the tabloid mythology of the 'easy life on benefits'.