So as you all know, or can find out from my #LeftyInABusinessSchool homepage, I’m documenting my journey through Universal Credit (UC). A journey I’m forced to take after severally fracturing my ankle and not receiving Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from my employer due to being a ‘low earner’. This is from my part-time job I use to fund my MSc course which I work around nine hours per week on a Saturday and up to five days during the holidays.
When I left you all last time I had to arrange a verification meeting for my partner and I at my local job centre. This is because the online verification process in place was not working and, from findings from other individuals using this online verification tool, is unfit for purpose. I had to book two separate appointments for my partner and myself even though it is a single claim for my SSP and my partner is not claiming anything. This minimised my availability, to sort an appointment, due to him providing care for a family member and has further delayed my claim. However, I observe that similar caring responsibilities may reflect the reality of many claimants navigating through this system too. This delay to my claim comes from waiting for a meeting I wouldn’t have had to attend if realisable online verification software was available in the first place.
We attended the Job Centre Plus on Friday lunch time. I found both members of staff we came across to be incredibly friendly. The team member who was conducting our ID verification meeting saw us together which seemed logical but was not permitted when I tried to book over the phone.
She explained in detail about what she was going to need from us and apologised as the meeting consisted of her essentially just typing in details. This allowed me to ask probing questions about the online verification system. I had asked if it was common for new claimants having to confirm details in a face to face meeting due the online software not working and replied with “yea, it hardly ever works”. She rolled her eyes when I told her the Post Off be app didn’t work and she didn’t seem surprised to hear that.
This made me frustrated as this made me consider how much does the Department of Work and Pensions pay these six private companies to provide an inadequate service. I have also, from speaking to many people claiming UC responding to my blogs, identified that these ‘unfit for purpose’ software providers are used by the tax office; meaning more money for these private companies in exchange for poor services. I would like to, and indeed intend to, raise this point with Conservative Party representatives as surely in the age of Austerity this contract should be cut, due to these private companies not meeting the organisations needs, and help fund vital public services already lost funding under this regime. Less money for private shareholders of these six companies at the expense of vulnerable people across the UK during this time of Austerity imposed on us.
Whilst the employee worked through verifying our ID I took the time to take in some of my surroundings. The Job Centre Plus office was quiet with around seven different staff members visible on the floor and around ten customers being seen to or sat in the waiting area. The pace seemed fairly relaxed and not particularly busy. There were two security guards visible. One was leaning on a windowsill at the far end of the office and the other was pacing the floor. I did notice the ‘positive’ branding of UC over the walls using inspiring quotes and imagery on posters and window decals. These included families laughing, a female employee smiling working in a cafe and a man opening a steel gate in a depot laughing to the camera. The reality of the dowdy office was very different as many people looked solemn and no interaction amongst the clients sitting in the waiting area; no one was laughing or smiling.
Once we had got both our documentation verified, finally on the fifth try with four separate attempts online, the employee gave us our new ID numbers for logging into the UC site. Now, the process of logging into out UC accounts consists of a unique username, a password, a 16 digit number of which you are randomly asked for five different characters and answering a security question.
Afterwards I handed over my fit note which the employee had to photocopy. It was at this point the information got very interesting. My partner was told that he “shouldn’t need to come back but if he did he would be contacted”. We asked for clarification of why my partner would have to return as everything had been confirmed online and it was only the ID verification that was outstanding “you just might be”. We were both told if we needed to come in again to the office “we must have ID”. What was interesting as all of these instructions were being typed into a messages box on the computer to be used as evidence against us if we appeared with no ID in the future. We were given a rather patronising ‘managing your money’ pamphlet which the employee meekly gave us. I get the impression by this behaviour that it is compulsory that the Job Centre Plus employees must tick certain boxes and indicates a lot of centralised control by senior management.
I wanted to clarify what happened next and I was told my first payment date for my claim was on the 14th of March. I asked if that was when I would be paid my SSP? The employee said this wasn’t her area of expertise and she didn’t know, however she did have nearly 20 years experience she divulged to us earlier, and I’d have to speak to my ‘work coach’ about this. I asked how much I would get paid on the 14th of March “I don’t know and we also don’t know if you will receive anything. Keep logging onto your UC account to check for changes”. I had to clarify this as I was dumbfounded. We have a welfare system that means people would leave that meeting and they won’t know when or what they will receive any payment. This indicates even more centralised control for different authoritative levels of employees and that certain data is being reserved to skilled employees; in this case ‘work coaches’.
I was offered if I would like to apply for emergency funding as it was still around a month until my first payment date. I didn’t want to take up any more time of the Job Centre Plus staffs time or resources but asked for details. This is where you could apply for emergency essential funding in lieu of your first payment. This would be deducted from your first or first few payments depending on the amount. I find this option to be important but it is a reflection of poor design by The Government and also not meeting the needs of claimants. The standard waiting time for UC is around six weeks and if someone is desperate or has a family I find it repugnant that The Government has made this the standard waiting time as emergency funding can be refused depending on your status. No wonder we have local governments experiencing higher levels of rent arrears from benefit claimants alongside sanctions.
I went on to ask if it was not just straight forward as I was only wishing to claim for my STATUTORY Sick Pay and would receive that payment for this on the 14th March. The employee then informed me that my partners income could influence the outcome and in some cases I might not get anything! Now this in itself is highly ideological, as the assumption from The State is my partner can afford to pay my outgoings with his wage as well as his own. I was also told I will receive a letter for a medical assessment, even though I have a fit note and a clearly fractured ankle and walking on crutches, and will receive a notification to meet with a work coach. This will of course be documented for you all on here as and when these take place.
What I can take from the outcome of this meeting is that there is a clear divide between individuals in safe secure employment and those in precarious work. The types of people that tend to work in precarious jobs, part-time work and temporary jobs tend to be less skilled workers, students, from a less affluent background or a woman. If you are employed on a permanent full-time contract your are almost certain to receive some sort of sick pay and SSP from your employer. If you are a ‘low earner’ in a more casual based work set up you will get nothing from, or at least organised by, your employer leaving you between a rock and a hard place. This is being made even more difficult for employees like myself to get justice as we must go through the lengthy UC process and my partners earnings could prevent me from receiving anything. The inequality observed in this country, through reward in work alone, is absolutely scandalous and, as this process continues, I become more and more motivated to highlight this injustice to those who are lucky enough to not gone through this. It is something I had never thought I’d have to face but it can happen anyone; my experience started by simply fracturing my ankle whilst being a student.
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