Blair, who we met this week, lost his job some weeks back and is still waiting for his first payment of Universal Credit. He is also young and fit and responded to an advertisement for a picking job at a local fruit farm. When he rang them he was surprised to be asked about his nationality and whether he spoke English. The farm never got back to him.
As we explained in last week’s post on the use of migrant labour for berry picking, Blair doesn’t fit fruit-farming’s current business model. This relies on a labour force that will put up with pressured conditions without complaint, because if they are sacked they will be left without anything in a foreign country, and because the pay they are getting is worth more when they get back to Eastern Europe. Our blog was widely shared, but only one person mentioned doing recent work on a fruit farm. They wrote ‘My son tried fruit picking and can attest to the intolerable pressure put on the workers to “pick until they drop”’. Clearly we would like to see fruit picking jobs made available to local people, but also for conditions to be improved, so that no-one is forced into such poor quality work.
And there is another problem with temporary work. This has always caused workers additional hassle and cost because of the problems of signing off and on again. Under Universal Credit, it has become harder and more complicated. If you get work that pays enough to take you out of Universal Credit for more than 6 months, then when you sign on you start all over again with another 5 weeks’ wait for benefits. If you are off UC for less than 6 months, then signing on again is simpler as your information is still in the system, but the wait to get your first benefit payment can be considerably worse. You keep the same assessment period as you had previously: so if they calculated your benefits by looking at your income from the 15th of one month to the 14th of the next month, and then paid you on 21st, say, they will continue to do this. How soon you get your first benefit payment depends on how this assessment period lines up with your final pay cheque. A days’ difference in when you are paid could make almost a month’s difference in when you receive your first benefit payment. In the worst case scenario, if your final payment from your job came at the beginning of an assessment period, then you could be awarded no benefits that month. You would receive nothing until the end of the next assessment month plus 7 days for the money to go through – i.e. 2 months and 6 days after your final pay cheque.
And this is the benefit that was supposed to simplify the system and make it easier to move in and out of work!
WHEN YOU SIGN ON MATTERS:
You will only receive benefits for the first assessment period when you return to UC after less than 6 months if your final payment was smaller than usual and didn’t take you over the UC threshold – e.g. you might be being paid for less than a month’s work. If this is the case it is important to sign on again within 7 days of your job ending in order to qualify for payment for the full month.
On the other hand, if you have been off UC for more than 6 months and need to start again, then you should delay making a claim till after you have received your final pay so that it is not included in your first month’s assessment.
(Thanks to CPAG for helping to clarify this.)