“We’re collateral damage”: Workers slip through the cracks of emergency coronavirus help

Hundreds of thousands of people who started new jobs in March are cut off from the government’s Job Retention Scheme.

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In January this year, a PR account executive called Tolu Adams, 22, began to feel drained by her job. Commuting two hours each way from Bedfordshire, where she has lived for 15 years, to the office in London every day was robbing her of free time and a work-life balance.

Struggling from low energy levels due to anaemia, she decided that returning home every day at 9pm only to have to wake up at 5am the next day was unsustainable, so she began searching for a new PR job closer to home.

With a first-class degree in business and management from the University of Lincoln, from which she graduated last September, she was hired swiftly by a new company just a 20-minute drive from her home. She handed in her notice at her London job, which she would leave by the end of February.

She was sent her new contract on 30 January. The start date, written on the contract, was 2 March 2020, meaning she would receive her first paycheck at the end of March. 

Little did she know then that this date would prove so significant less than a month later. Tolu Adams is one of hundreds of thousands of workers missed out by the government’s emergency Job Retention Scheme.

The scheme, designed to stop employers laying people off during the coronavirus crisis, covers 80 per cent of employees’ salaries – and is open to all who were on the payroll on 28 February 2020.

Adams was a month off this cut-off. She was given notice last week.

“I’ve gained a job and lost a job within four weeks, which is just crazy to me,” she tells me over the phone from Bedfordshire.

Living with her mother, who is a nurse, and two younger sisters, aged 21 and eight, Adams’ salary helped out her family financially and was supposed to contribute towards a mortgage. The family currently rent and were planning to move into a house of their own at the end of April.

“I’ve got car repayments, I’ve got credit cards, I’ve got overdrafts,” she says. “My mental health has really been spiralling now because of being stuck at home for two to three weeks now, and now I’ve lost my job.”

These workers who have fallen through the cracks call themselves the “new starter furlough” in support groups online. The Facebook group “New Starter Furlough: Support For Workers Who Changed Job After 28 Feb 2020” has over 3,000 members, nearly 30,000 have signed a Change.org petition, and there is a #newstarterfurlough hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

Job vacancies are typically higher between November and March, year on year, so we are currently in the usual peak season for hiring. Although figures are not yet available for this year, in 2017 there were 467,000 new hires in the January to February period, and in 2016, there were 491,000.*

This means that hundreds of thousands of people are potentially missing out on the government’s help for employees.

“We’re basically like collateral damage,” says Adams, who began working in PR and paying taxes at the age of 19 while she was still at university. “We’re human beings, we’re not numbers.”

When contacted, both HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions did not comment but directed me to the Treasury.

A Treasury spokesperson said:

“Our Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is protecting thousands of jobs up and down the UK – with the Government covering 80 per cent of the salary of furloughed workers. 

“Firms can reemploy staff made redundant after 1 March and those who do not qualify will be able to access a range of other support – including an increase in the Universal Credit allowance, income tax deferrals, £1bn more support for renters and access to three-month mortgage holidays.”

The popular personal finance expert Martin Lewis has been looking into the issue, and tweeted yesterday that the Treasury also confirmed to him that old employers can rehire and furlough those who left their jobs voluntarily, not just those who were made redundant.

Adams, who left her old job voluntarily, contacted her old employer but had no luck.

“They don’t legally have to take us back,” she tells me.

The other suggestion is to apply for Universal Credit. Delays caused by the overwhelming demand for the benefit, and the five-week wait for the first payment, are denying new claimants immediate financial relief, however.

“The Universal Credit system is crippling already,” says Adams, who calls the benefit a “last resort”.

She is already speaking to recruiters and attempting to find a new job, which is very difficult in the current climate. “At this stage, the PR industry is just crumbling,” she says. “I feel like I’m tied down, shackled down – I’m trying my best but don’t really know what to do at this current moment, apart from what they’re telling me to do, which is to claim benefits.

“At 22, when I have all my qualifications and all my experience and I’ve worked so hard, I feel I shouldn’t have to claim benefits,” she says. “I just feel like it’s so unfair for me and other people to get punished for trying to find new jobs to make their lives better.”

*Data collated by Ben Walker.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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