Saturday, 5 March 2011

How Inflexible The System Is When You Get Temporary Work

As I have often noted on this blog, I have now been out of work for nine months. I have had a little work, adding up to a total of 7 weeks and 3 days, which I suppose means that I have only been unemployed for six months and twenty-seven days. However, that ephemeral work hardly felt like a proper job and certainly my career is no less derailed than when I was made redundant last June. I have been signing on at the Job Centre Plus and fulfilling all their requirements very carefully. After six months, the contribution-based Jobseeker's Allowance ran out, but I could not get the Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, because I happened to live in a house with a woman who ran her own business that meant she worke more than 24 hours per week. It did not matter that in a good year she earnt £12,000 (€14,280; US$18,120) per year and due to the recession was making a loss, so she was not in much position to contribute to the household income. The fact that she worked more than 24 hours meant I got no unemployment benefit or mortgage interest benefit; I did get National Insurance credits, but of course never see them, they just go to another part of the civil service. Hence the rush to dispose of the house before it was repossessed. This is one reason why there is a difference between the number of people who are unemployed and the number of people receiving benefit for being unemployed. David Cameron notes very proudly when the latter figure goes down as if it was a benefit to the entire country rather than just the Treasury. In fact, all it marks is that another set of people have fallen foul of the tricksy regulations around such benefits. They do nothing to encourage people to try even harder to find work, they simply cut off even the meagre benefits they are receiving.

The requirements of signing on, even if you are not actually receiving benefits, mean that you have to be 'actively looking for work', this entails carrying out three activities (e.g. going to the Job Centre, reading a newspaper, calling an employment agency) each week. I was also compelled to apply for two jobs each week and after six months to apply for any job that I was deemed to be suitable for. This latter condition was quite laughable, because even in my own industry I got such negative (even hostile at times) feedback from some interviews that it seemed that even trying to get back into work I had done before, I was no longer seen as 'suitable'.

I was also encouraged to find temporary and part-time work. I am not averse to that, as proven by my two periods of temporary work. I am signed up with three employment agencies, but they seem unable to find anything for me. In a depression as we are currently experiencing, unemployment figures are kept lower by people who previously had full-time jobs taking part-time and temporary work. This is why female unemployment tends to rise slower and fall quicker, because a lot of such jobs, for example, in caring and retail, tend to appoint women rather than men. In the UK we consider someone going even on to say 18 hours per week, to no longer be unemployed, even though previously they had always worked 37.5 hours per week.
So, as in the 1980s, with a weak economy, temporary work is back in flavour. Do the government and local authorities then make it easy for someone to go in and out of temporary work so as to encourage people to take it up? Of course not. If the work is anything over a week you have to sign off from the Job Centre. Even if you just do 6 days' part-time work you have to start all over again with the application form and having the interviews and stating what you will do to find work. The cost of doing this for people who have found one or two weeks' work must be phenomenal. I turned up after my week's work and had to write and say everything that had precisely been on my file less than a fortnight earlier. Of course, having a new claim means there is a delay in getting benefits. If you have worked for a week or a fortnight, you are unlikely to be paid until the end of that month, in my case and many others, not until the end of the following month, so taking on work, in the short term, leaves you short of funds whilst the benefits are processed once again. This is hardly an incentive to take on temporary work, especially when your housing benefit is dependent on you receiving Jobseeker's Allowance.

There is a further complication which does nothing to reduce unemployment in the longer term.  After six months of signing on for Jobseeker's Allowance you begin to become eligible for training courses.  These can vary between a short course on a particular package to the Department of Work & Pensions allowing you to attend a college a certain number of days per week to entirely retrain without them stopping your benefits.  The trouble is, even if you take a week's temporary work, your 'clock' is reset to zero.  So after my one week's work in November I returned to sign on as if I had not been unemployed for the preceding five months.  Once I finish my current work I will again start as if I had not been unemployed for half of last year and part of this year.  I have been in work for only 7 weeks out of 30 but when I sign on again the 23 weeks of unemployment are disregarded and I have to start again being unemployed for six months before I can go on training.

It seems apparent after applying for seventy positions and attending 22 interviews that my sector is in trouble.  Many sectors are, but I might widen my chances by retraining.  However, nine fragmented months of unemployment does not count, it has to be six months unbroken.  I have been encouraged to take temporary work and certainly welcome the little bits of money it has brought in.  However, in terms of getting me into a permanent job or even one that lasts six months rather than just six weeks, I have done myself, and thus the state, a disfavour.  Again, very short-sighted policies make it harder not easier to get off benefits for the long term.

Dealing with the Department of Work & Pensions, time after time, saying the same thing again and again just because you have got bits of work. Dealing with the local authorities is far harder. In the UK local councils pay out the benefits to help with your council tax payments (effectively giving you a discount on that) and housing benefit (which is currently being constrained far more by central government). Now every council has different rules and procedures for applying for such benefit. The town I am currently in, sends print outs covering four sheets of A4 paper every time there is even a minimal change to your circumstances.

When our student lodger left one week earlier than planned we had four pages of calculations to tell us we would receive £3.95 (€4.70; US$5.96) more in council tax benefit than previously advised. When I first signed on they sent me a council tax refund which I felt was short-sighted of them, and it has proven to be the case. Taking my first week's temporary work before Christmas led them to send me a form to complete again, this covered 16 pages, though fortunately most of it was irrelevant.

The woman in my house was again sent an even longer form which requested all details of her business. It contained patronising advice about how she should run her business and wanted all the details of her private and business accounts and three months' worth of income, though of course, they had had this data just a few weeks before. She was angry at this request, because as she pointed out, it was me, not her who was claiming the benefit.

Now, I have had six weeks' work and my Jobseeker's Allowance stopped when I started the work. Within days of me doing that, I receive a demand from the council for the outstanding council tax, which is £280 (€333; US$422), which is just £27 more than the refund they gave me last summer. Of course, again I was not paid until the end of February, but the demand was to be paid on 6th February. How is it that the council assumes that the moment you start work, you suddenly have money? I wish it was the case, but in fact, again I had to wait until 28th February to get any pay for the work I did in January and will have to wait to the very end of this month for the work I did in February.

When you have been out of work as long as me, you do not have a slush fund to suddenly pay off new demands. In addition after this later, six weeks of employment, we have to start all over again, as if the council never knew anything about me. There is a good chance that they will have to refund some of the money I paid out at the start of February (having had to borrow more to cover it until I got paid). Is this efficient? No. I have a file full of paper about this, with money going back and forth between me and the council on the basis of some very complex formula which must be using up council funds to administer, if this is how much work, just my single case generates.

Temporary work is by definition a temporary solution, it is not a permanent job. Even so-called permanent jobs these days are only 1 or 2-year contracts, not really enough time to become established. We are in a context in which in a desire to see the unemployment figures fall even a little, civil servants will encourage you to take short-term temporary work. However, given that mass unemployment is going to be a characteristic of the next few years, probably the rest of this decade, we need to move to a benefit system that actually encourages you not only to take temporary work, but to be honest about it when you do. Making you jump through tiresome administrative hoops due to a few weeks' or even just days' work is wasteful and encourages people simply to conceal their temporary work. The attitude of my local council, which I accept is probably not universal, but is likely to be occurring in quite a few towns, is ridiculous, with no appreciation of how people are paid in the 21st century or how just because you have a job does not mean suddenly you have lots of money. In fact, for the initial days and weeks, you are liable to be worse off, having to pay for transport costs, clean clothes, food for lunches, etc.

My suggestion is that claims should simply be suspended for 4 weeks (perhaps 8 weeks would be better) when you get temporary work. Your 'clock' for eligibility for free training should be frozen, not reset.  If you go back unemployed within that time you should not be compelled to make a new claim, simply pick up where you left off. Councils should levy no charges on people until they have been at work for at least a month if not six weeks. In this way you will encourage people to take temporary work knowing they are not suddenly going to get demands for money the day they start it.

A little realism will make life a great deal easier for people, and in fact, save the central and local governments money by reducing all this duplicated paperwork they insist you do.When I got the one week's work, even before I had done the job I had a demand from the council that I provide two consecutive pay slips (which was never going to happen for a job lasting a week). I pointed out that I had not actually received any pay for the job yet and would not do so until the end of the following month. They did not seem to understand that these days most people are paid a month in arrears. They seem to think all temporary work is cash in hand. However, then, why do they think you would get two pay slips? In most jobs you get one per month. Ultimately I was compelled to send a certificate of earnings to be completed by my employer. The council demanded that this was completed before the month I had worked in was up, even though I did not actually receive any pay for a further four weeks. When I pointed this out, I was told I had to apply for a delay on the demand, generating yet more paper. Why cannot the council simply come into the 21st century and see how people work and are paid these days?

Since the 1980s, many employers in the public, as well as the private, sector have liked having part-time and temporary workers because they have fewer rights. This gap has been narrowed a great deal, but a relative of mine was laid off after 12 months in her job with the employer explicitly saying that it was so that she did not qualify for the rights that come after a year in employment, such as being able to take an employer to a tribunal (this is being extended to 2 years at the moment). There is an assumption by employers and the current government, that if you give people rights at work, somehow they will instantly use them and burden the company 'unnecessarily'. This shows the enduring arrogance of too many employers and their supporters in government. There is apparently no recognition that the constant 'churn' of workers on this basis actually costs companies money, not least in regular training of new staff and the inefficiency of people who have no experience in the company. However, flexibility is king and these benefits are dismissed.

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