To Millennium House in Stockport this morning, where caseworkers at the Stockport Universal Credit centre were on strike.
The strikers say that the centre doesn’t have the staff to provide Universal Credit claimants with the support they need. They say that people who claim Universal Credit are going without money because of that.
Much of a caseworker’s time at the centre is taken up trying to fix Universal Credit problems for local people who call, or whose problems and details are emailed to them by the national Universal Credit helpline.
Tasks range from sorting out advance loans, to trying to make sure people with children are paid the childcare costs that working Universal Credit claimants are entitled to (“the childcare costs [system] is a massive problem,” said caseworker Billy, 29, who was on the picket line). Workers also deal with calls from people who haven’t been paid the right amount of Universal Credit.
Billy, 29, said he had hundreds of cases on his caseload. Everyone in earshot nodded in agreement. I’ve heard figures in the hundreds before. I’ve certainly spoken to housing officers who’ve been brought in to deal with backlogs of hundreds of homelessness applications.
Another striker, George, 24, said he took about 133 calls last week from people who had problems with their claims:
“…so that’s averaged about 30 a day. [People] are on the phone to me saying, “why hasn’t it been done?” [why hasn’t my Universal Credit problem been fixed?] You’re not supposed to say, “well, [it’s because] the phone’s not stopped ringing.” It’s the true facts of it. You just get so many ad hoc queries on top of the work that you’ve got to do that it just all piles up.”
Both Billy and George said that people who claimed Universal Credit went without their entitlements, because staff were oversubscribed:
“Definitely…a lot of the time people [who claim Universal Credit] don’t get paid.. underpayments are generated if the staff can’t get the work done. There are underpayments, because people aren’t getting paid what they’re owed. It’s not their fault…”
George said that workers dealt with claimants who said they were suicidal:
“They’ll say – well, I’ve got nothing here.” It’s just like – it’s not even about getting the money any more. It’s just like – let’s look after their wellbeing first…I’m not saying this is every call, but I’m just saying it’s like a consequence for some people… this is Universal Credit. They [people who claim Universal Credit] are the most vulnerable people in society.”
There’s a second day of strike action tomorrow (Wednesday).
Here are transcripts from the interviews with Billy and George this morning:
BILLY: [The Universal Credit service centre] is not really a call centre [as such]. It gets turned into one sometimes… we’re actually case managers. We’re not meant to take that many calls… but when the phones are running nonstop, you can’t manage your claims…
It’s managed per team – so, say, if someone rings up with [from] their phone number, then our system then routes them to their case manager [at the centre] but if you’re managing 800 claims like some of us are, then – yeah.
“It is the workload,” another striker said. “At one point, there were 16 people on long-term sick…”
BILLY: The management think that we’re adequately staffed… over the summer with people being on holiday – they have the right to be on holiday – but…if we were adequately staffed, then you wouldn’t feel such a hit…
SECOND STRIKER: There’s such a disconnect between management and staff, because I was speaking to a manager last week and he seemed to think you’ve [we’ve] got it made and I’m looking at him…thinking that’s because you’ve never done it [the job]. You don’t know what you’re talking about…
ME: What will happen when they [the DWP] start migrating people from JSA and ESA to Universal Credit?
BILLY: That’s worrying… advances [Universal Credit advance payments] are a big subject [with people who contact the centre]. When people make their [Universal Credit] claims, they haven’t got any money, so they’ll need advances…
[There is]… a massive problem with childcare costs. Basically it boils down to… if you report it [your childcare costs] a bit late, you don’t get paid… the system doesn’t allow [you to change details]. See the end of this transcript for more details about problems with the Universal Credit childcare costs reimbursement system].