Staff: Universal Credit claimants go without money because support centres are woefully understaffed #UniversalCreditStrike

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:

Billy said:

“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].

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Northern remainers

To Stockport jobcentre, where I recently talked at length with Des, who is 60.

There’s a transcript from our discussion below. I post it as an example of a kind of flip side to social and mainstream Brexit hysteria – the right side of the Upside Down if you will. For every extremist, politician, party loyalist and media type who is losing their grip over Brexit, there is someone who is looking at the world like a grownup. It is easy to forget this in a world where overkill is the default.

Des was an ex-warehouse worker who’d been made redundant two years ago. Des wasn’t claiming benefits. He’d been living on redundancy money and savings since he’d lost his job.

His money was running out, though. Des used the jobcentre computers most days to look for work, because he didn’t have a computer at home:

“Five years to go until I retire. I still feel I got to work. I can’t afford it right now (not working). You’ve got people who work until they’re 80. You’ve got these in supermarkets now – some of them working until they’re 80 to make ends meet…. I might have to end up doing agency.”

Des was concerned about returning to warehouse work at his age. The work was physically tough: lifting, packing and long days on your feet.

Des had signed up to an agency which had texted him about 12-hour shifts. Des didn’t like the idea of 12 hours on the trot at the age of 60. Who would? He had enough to keep going for now:

“I just didn’t fancy getting up and doing a 12 hour day today… I’ve never done that. [I’ve done] 8 hours – 8 to 5. This would have been … could have been finishing about 11 tonight…”

We talked about Brexit.

Des said he wanted to remain. This was mostly because Des was worried about prices going up when England left Europe.

Des thought entirely in terms of the day-to-day cost of living.:

“I want to stay in… because I keep thinking only things will get dearer. I keep thinking they’re dear enough now.”

 

“I want things to go more in quantity for the same price. It’s all wrong now…I do have some luck when I can go around the supermarkets and getting your best reductions and get things a bit cheaper.”

————

Here’s Des when we spoke on July 4:

“It’s been two years… since I had a job… a warehouse. Mind you, I could have had a job today – off an agency. Said start as soon as possible, but it was a 12 hour shift and I didn’t fancy doing that right away…12 hour shift… in Reddish. It would have been [the same sort of warehouse work]. They don’t give much away on the phone. I didn’t fancy a 12 hour shift. I’ve done 8 hours, but a 12 hour shift.. they give you all sorts of strange things in the 12 hours, you know…

“That was on the phone. The agency texts you and says can you start as soon as possible. Mind you, I got an interview with another place last week, but they said they won’t let you know until the middle of July…cause they got to see everybody else as well you know… when I went to McVitie’s, they text you right away if they wanted you or not, but this one makes you wait before they… they probably say no, cause I am not too clever with their texts… their paperwork, it was like foreign with me and they haven’t got to time discuss things with you…

“I’ve been doing straightforward warehouse work – picking [sic], packing and all that. I’ve only been in the warehouse for the last ten years. Before that, I was in publishing, sort of, in a warehouse and that was just sort of everyday stuff. No skill or anything. I’ve been in mainly no-skilled jobs, so the other company is a bigger company, so I’ll be lucky if I get in there. You see I’ve gone from small to getting bigger and bigger [companies]. They expect you to have more knowledge [written and computer skills]. You see where you haven’t got that…

“I’m not on any [benefits] yet, because I’ve got too much [in savings] to claim… because I’ve been working all my life, it is only the last two years [that I haven’t been working]. I got redundancy, but I haven’t got enough to retire… if you’ve got less than £100k, you probably haven’t got enough…I keep doing lots of shortcuts [saving on spending] and hoping for the best you know…

“I’m 60. Five years to go until I retire. I still feel I got to work. I can’t afford it right now [not working]. You’ve got people who work until they’re 80. You’ve got these in supermarkets now – some of them working until they’re 80 to make ends meet… I might have to end up doing agency. I just didn’t fancy getting up and doing a 12 hour day today… I’ve never done that… 8 hours, 8 to 5 this would have been … could have been finishing about 11 tonight…

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We’ve stopped your Universal Credit today without warning because you’re working without pay…

…or something.

I wrote recently about Alice (name changed). Alice got a job as a security guard for a G4S supplier BUT must wait two months for her first pay.

Alice has been out of work for several years. She’s been claiming Universal Credit.

She was relying on Universal Credit for rent and some income until she received that first wage packet (she won’t be paid until the end of July).

But on Monday morning, a note appeared in Alice’s Universal Credit journal which said her Universal Credit had been stopped that day. Alice had no warning. She just got the note in her journal:

journal_note_universal credit stopped

As you can see, the note says Alice’s Universal Credit was stopped, because Alice had told Universal Credit that she had a job, but not how much she was earning.

Alice is, of course, not earning anything for two months. That’s why she has not submitted any information about her earnings. She has nothing to submit.

She did, however, tell Universal Credit that she wouldn’t get any wages for two months. Universal Credit noted that.

There can be no doubt that Universal Credit noted that, because Universal Credit agreed to reduce Alice’s advance loan repayment amounts for the two months without wages to leave her with more money for that time.

Now, Universal Credit has stopped all Alice’s money and left her with nothing.

She rang Universal Credit and was hung up on, because the officer on the phone felt that Alice was angry.

I’d be angry myself if I was working for nothing and being punished for it by the DWP, but you know how it is. People who don’t have a penny to spare are supposed to take all this on the chin.

So.

This is the sort of garbage that people have to put up with – working for nothing and then being punished by the DWP and pushed into rent arrears and all the rest for not getting paid.

Meanwhile, the Tories tear themselves to pieces over Europe and Labour tears itself to pieces over anti semitism.

And people wonder why I say that I hope that the whole of Westminster is sucked down a sewer.

Blogging will be light over the next month or two as am finishing up a transcription project. Still available for contact here.

Blogging for July-August

Hi all,

Blogging will be light over the next month or two as am finishing up a major transcription project – all the interviews I’ve made and recordings from homelessness and jobcentre meetings that I’ve attended in the past five years. Still available for contact here.

Good news: you’ve got a job. Bad news: you won’t be paid for two months

Here’s a story of another employment shambles – yet another example of the reasons why low-wage work is impossible to survive on:

“Alice” (name changed), is in her early 40s. She’s been claiming Universal Credit for about three years.

Alice has recently been employed as a jobcentre security guard. This is Alice’s first job for some time. She needs the work and she needs the money. Alice has serious rent arrears (she’s being evicted from her flat because of that), council tax debt and more.

Unfortunately, starting work won’t improve Alice’s situation – certainly not in the first instance.

Alice has been told that she won’t get her first wages for nearly two months.

That’s because the company that employed Alice (a contractor/subsidiary/whatever that apparently supplies guards under the G4S Secure Solutions banner) has an horrendously punitive pay system.

Payday is the last day of each month. People get paid a month in arrears. So – if someone starts work at the beginning of April, for example, they must wait until May 31st for their first wages. They get nothing on 30 April. I have seen HR emails which outline this “system” to pissed-off employees who ask about it. People ask about it, because they can’t believe it. The emails describe the timelag. I swear to god. I keep looking at those emails and that is what they say. This stuff does my head in.

Two months is a long time to go without money. It is an especially long time to go without money when you have no money to start with – when you’ve been out of work for years and you’re about to lose your flat, because you can’t afford rent.

Alice said:

“I don’t have money. I don’t have money to eat – I have, like, £5 for… I’m going to have to be on a diet.”

There’s more.

At training, Alice and other guard trainees were told that their employer would only pay them one month’s wages in that first payment at the end of the first two months. The trainer said that they would receive that month’s outstanding wages when their employment ended.

Alice said:

“It’s like I’m paying deposit to work for them or something.”

Brilliant.

I looked at the HR emails again. I concluded that the month’s “withheld wages” likely has to do with the month-in-arrears payment system. In our previous example, if a person started work at the beginning of April and was first paid wages on 31st May, they would only be paid for their April earnings on 31 May. They wouldn’t be paid their May wages until 30 June.

This stuff drives people up the wall.

So.

Alice and other guards are told by their employer to tell jobcentres that they’re with G4S Secure Solutions when they turn up for work. I’ve seen messages with that exact instruction. So, I asked G4S for comment on this wages behaviour from companies that supply security guards under the G4S banner.

This part of the exercise was as thankless as you’d expect.

G4S was pissed off. I wouldn’t tell them the name of the company that was sending in security guards on its behalf. I had reason for withholding that name for now – protecting Alice from retribution being one. I was hoping (ha) that G4S would take the initiative anyway – that it would immediately announce an inspection of every supplier and anyone who appeared to be providing guards on its behalf to ensure that everyone operated on the level.

Such initiative is never taken, of course. You rarely get initiative. You only get corporate defensiveness.

I got this from G4S:

“We only work with sub-contractors approved by the security industry association approved contractor scheme and we expect the organisations we use to align to our policies for remuneration, cash advances and uniform provision,” etc, etc.

I also got a lot of moaning – G4S saying it was unfair to make connections between itself and other companies without handing over details. The hell with that. I hand over nothing. G4S has less to lose than Alice. As I say, I couldn’t see why G4S couldn’t take some sort of initiative regardless.

I rang the company that employed Alice to ask about the connection between itself and G4S – and also, as it happens, to ask about applying for security guard roles for someone else. Needless to say, nobody called back. So – we’ll keep at it. Maybe there are companies out there who send guards off to jobcentres, tell them to say they work for G4S if anyone asks and then have a laugh out the back. Hell – maybe there really are. This end of the employment scene is infernal. The thing teems with corporates, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and anyone else who has an eye to the main chance and no notion of fairness or responsibility. When Alice and I first spoke, she wasn’t entirely sure who she was working for. That happens all the time.

Her new employment has presented Alice with other money problems.

She’s had to take another Universal Credit loan to pay for expensive peak-hour travel across London to the jobcentres sites that she works at. Like everyone I talk to who claims Universal Credit, Alice is already paying back a Universal Credit advance loan which she took out to cover another debt.

Her jobcentre work coach said that the DWP would suspend repayments on the first loan while Alice waited for her first wages. Unfortunately, a loan repayment deduction was still made from Alice’s last Universal Credit payment. Her work coach said that he couldn’t give Alice a free travel pass, because her employer wasn’t able to say in advance exactly which days Alice would be working, or where. Alice has a zero hours contract and is sent to different jobcentres. Those decisions are made on the day.

Anyway.

I realise that many people couldn’t care less what happens to jobcentre security guards. God knows I’ve reported first-hand experiences of guard aggression. The point I’m making is that there are people out there who find work, but still can’t earn.

I’d also make the point that government likes the sort of tension that festers at jobcentres. It takes stressed, bullied and poverty-stricken benefit claimants, low-paid security guards and jobcentre advisers with the power to sanction people’s benefit payments, and abandons everyone to each other in jobcentres. It’s hard not to conclude that carnage has always been the plan.

Meanwhile, back at the jobcentre…

Let’s go back to Stockport jobcentre, where I spoke at length recently with Pat, who was in her 40s.

Pat was manic: pacing and talking non-stop. She’d just been released from prison. Pat said that she was from Manchester, but been dropped at a halfway house of some description in Bredbury in Stockport:

“I don’t know where I am…I thought it was in Stockport, but it was in Bredbury. I was put there.”

Pat had to make a claim for Universal Credit at the jobcentre, but had no idea how to begin. She said that she didn’t have money for food.

I meet too many people in such situations at jobcentres: confused, clearly in need and reeling outside a jobcentre:

Said Pat (she was confused and spoke fast):

“I have to get… I usually have a [support] worker with me, but I’ve left it too late. She’s gone off now, because it is a bank holiday, yeah… I’m just come out of prison recently and … you get like £300, or whatever, but they… they dropped me here… I’m… from… Bredbury…

 

“I didn’t have… on my life, [I was] crying… come out [of prison] the day before. Everything was shut. I couldn’t get me doctor. I couldn’t get… I was sat in the stupid house where they put me… so finally my probation – they came and got me…I just got a ticket. I had to find [my] here [to the jobcentre]. I had nothing to get out with… in [prison] for 10 months…

 

“I get scared and I don’t want to walk around where I don’t know where I am…I thought it was in Stockport, but it was in Bredbury. I was put there. I’m from Manchester. I went into Manchester jobcentre, but they wouldn’t help me. They were saying – “Oh, because you’re living in Stockport…[we can’t help you in a Manchester jobcentre].

 

“It’s in like a bail house – a bail hostel in Bredbury. I’ve just come out of there. No bus ticket. No money and it was Easter when I got out. She [the support worker] did bring me a bag of food.

 

“I had to beg people. She [the support worker] did come up to me with a bus ticket, so I thought right – I’m just going to have to go and find it [Stockport jobcentre] It’s very hard for me, so I’m quite proud that I actually found it…

 

“What am I going to say [to staff at the jobcentre]? I’ve got a make a claim. Never done Universal Credit. I was on PIP and ESA when I went away, but obviously now I’m….it’s all changed… so it’s going to be Universal Credit now, so I think I make a claim and like [ask for] an advance payment [for food money] yeah… if it gets a bit difficult, I’ll come out and get you…”

 

Next up was Dennis, who was in his 50s.

Dennis was disabled. He was sitting in his wheelchair outside of the jobcentre.

Dennis said that he’d been moved from his one-bedroom first floor flat to a ground floor flat – he found the first floor flat too hard to get to.

Unfortunately, the ground floor flat had two bedrooms. That meant Dennis had to pay the bedroom tax for the “spare” room. He’d had one discretionary housing payment to cover the extra cost. That had finished. Now, Dennis was trying to work out what to do.

Dennis said:

“I was in one bedroom upstairs flat and I had to go [because of my disability]… they put me into a two bedroom [ground floor] flat. I’m now paying each fortnight for the bedroom tax. One of the bedrooms can’t be lived in…. so I’m paying for that.

“I was in the old place for about 30 years. I had to go to the ground floor flat…I still have to pay [the tax]… the reason for moving was the mobility.

“I’ve got a flat in Reddish. When I went to get the paperwork and all that – they’d given it to somebody else. It was the same street and same number. They got the names mixed up…”

 

And so on.

You get the picture. It’s chaos out here. Nothing makes sense. I keep meeting people at jobcentres who are just plain bewildered. On and on and on it goes.

It’s hard to see a time coming when Brexit is pushed aside and this mess is addressed.

Posting as usual should resume next week.

Back soon

Working through a few stories atm so back soon.

Still available for contact here or on twitter, tho am giving social media a break here and there as the Tory leadership contest is pushing me to the edge. May they all drown in a sewer.

We’ll find you intentionally homeless even though it’s our fault you’re homeless

So.

To the housing frontline again – where a Greater London council officer I interview tells me about another senseless intentional homelessness threat (you can read earlier interviews with that officer about intentional homelessness cases here).

The officer gives this story as another example of the shambles in council homelessness departments in austerity. Staff shortages, extreme caseloads and a mass of application forms and paperwork created by personal housing plans mean that officers in under-resourced housing offices can too easily lose the thread.

The officer talks about a recent case where a Greater London council threatened to find a woman intentionally homeless. The council made this threat even though the council itself was completely responsible for the woman’s homelessness. The council denied the woman housing benefit for 12 months, because it failed to keep proper track of the woman’s supporting paperwork and evidence. She was ultimately evicted for rent arrears. Brilliant.

The officer was responsible for reviewing the woman’s case.

The woman worked as a cleaner. The officer said that she “worked all hours,” to make ends meet. She still didn’t earn much. She claimed housing benefit to help pay her rent.

Just over a year ago, the woman changed jobs. She let her council know about this change.

That’s when the problems began.

For reasons that the woman never understood, the council shut down her housing benefit claim completely. The council wouldn’t restart her claim, or even set up a new one quickly. Continue reading

When women in absolute poverty are denied their kids, legal help and housing

Here’s a scenario that I’ve seen several times now: a woman facing homelessness after losing her kids in a custody battle that she couldn’t afford to fight.

One of the women I’ve written about several times for this blog has been in touch to say that she is facing eviction and homelessness. She has serious rent arrears – thousands of pounds. She has an eviction notice and will be thrown out her flat.

This woman is facing street homelessness. The arrears and eviction likely mean that her council won’t help her find housing. They’ll decide that she’s responsible for her eviction – that she’s made herself intentionally homeless.

Except that things aren’t quite that simple. They rarely are.

This woman is in arrears for two reasons:

The first is the benefit cap. The arrears began when the benefit cap was applied. The woman lost over half of her housing benefit entitlement literally overnight. There was no way she could make up this sudden loss of rent money.

The second reason is that the woman recently lost custody of her children. This was brutal. I can’t give much detail here, but I’ve seen this scenario several times.

The woman’s relationship with her ex-partner ended acrimoniously. Her much-better-resourced ex lawyered up and went to court for the kids. The character assassination this woman endured during this case was nasty.

So was the woman’s isolation. She had no money and no lawyer for most of the time (she scraped together a bit of money for advice early on, but couldn’t keep that going on any level. She didn’t have any money). This woman was one of the thousands of people who are now forced to represent themselves in bitter, convoluted and drawn-out custody fights. Even getting basic advice about entitlements and rights was impossible. She never had a chance.

So – the rent arrears. Already in debt, the woman stopped receiving housing benefit (Universal Credit in her case) for the bedrooms that her children had occupied. She couldn’t meet rent payments at all. The thing is completely out of hand.

She’ll be evicted soon.

God knows what happens after that. I guess that at best, she’ll find a crappy studio flat somewhere – if she can scrape together money for a deposit and rent, and find a landlord who accepts Universal Credit claimants who’ve been evicted for serious rent arrears. At worst, she’ll be street homeless. She’ll have no chance of getting her kids back without a place for them to stay.

Any constructive suggestions on this situation are welcome. I’ve interviewed three women in the same situation in recent times. There must be a way of getting legal representation and housing for people.

Single mothers are placed in terrible housing by councils. Then social services muscles in when the family falls apart because of the terrible housing

Here’s more about the ways that authorities keep homeless single mothers and their kids in chaos and under the thumb.

I’ve posted a transcript from a longer interview with Marsha, 30, at the end of this article.

Marsha is a homeless Newham woman who lives with her little daughter in one room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

The two share a bed in this room. They’ve lived in the hostel for more than two years. I’ve written several stories about Marsha’s situation.

Marsha and her daughter in the one room in their hostel

In the transcript below, Marsha talks at length about the invasive attention that she has drawn from council social services and her daughter’s school as a homeless single mother.

Social services and her daughter’s school have been on Marsha’s case for a while. They order Marsha to bring her daughter to same-day meetings with social workers, or ring to say she must get to her daughter’s school right away.

There’s not always been time for Marsha to arrange for someone to accompany her to these meetings. That’s a big concern. Marsha has been questioned in detail by authorities about her mental and emotional health, and her daughter’s mental and emotional health. She’s been put on the spot by people she does not know in a system that she can’t trust – often without witnesses, or representation. Women I speak with raise this issue all the time.

The thing is – Marsha IS worried about her daughter’s mental and emotional health, and her own. Bad living conditions and relentless questioning from social services and schools inevitably affect a family’s frame of mind.

Marsha has severe depression and anxiety. She often says that she is concerned her small daughter is being negatively affected by their cramped living space and the social services meddling that the little girl has witnessed. You’d be dreaming if you thought that a child would not be affected by those things.

In the transcript below, Marsha says:

“All of a sudden, [my daughter] is seeing me in a very distressed state, because of everything that I’m going through. These people around here – she is exposed to conversations [which she shouldn’t be]…”

The problem is that Marsha must justify her family’s responses to their living conditions to organisations that hold all the cards.

Marsha is in a situation that a lot of homeless single mothers talk about. She’s been placed in poor housing by public authorities [her council]. Then, she’s been made to answer to public authorities as her family’s health has disintegrated because of the poor housing that the family has been placed in and the lack of decent alternatives. There’s no way to win. Marsha has no power in this scene.

Marsha says she understands that authorities have safeguarding roles – but that doesn’t mean that they’re above cornering women. Most single mothers in poor housing I talk with worry constantly about councils taking their children. That means they’re always on the back foot. There can be no balance in conversations that they have with authorities because of it.

Says Marsha in the transcript:

“…it was totally out of order how the council referred me to social services without even telling me [and insisted that Marsha brought her daughter to a social services meeting]. I even said, “I don’t even know why [my daughter] is there [at the meeting].” [The social worker] said, “No, we just want to see if there is any concerns.”

 

“….I still complied, because I’m thinking the last thing that I want to do is jeopardise myself. So, if [the social worker is] saying that she wants to see me and my daughter, of course I am going to see her [the social worker] … [but] I would never had let [my daughter] sit through these conversations [if I’d known how they would affect her]. If I could have called my mother and say, “could you hold [my daughter] for two hours while I have a conversation with this lady [social worker]…”

Women should not be forced to retreat and retreat like this. Continue reading