The coronavirus crisis has radically changed the job roles and working environment in Jobcentres.
Department for Work and Pensions policy on self-isolation for permanent staff is relatively good, sending anyone with a relevant underlying health condition home for 12 weeks on full pay, although there are arguments with management about staff who live with vulnerable people still being asked to come in.
G4S staff are on full pay, despite significantly reduced hours because almost no security is needed now jobcentres have been closed to the public, and would be paid if they needed to self-isolate. There have been persistent problems with the supply of soap and hand sanitizer, and there have been problems with local management not following HR rules.
Our union, PCS, is arguing for improvements to social distancing measures and for full pay for all outsourced workers, but the campaign lacks visibility.
Because the workforce is relatively old, once those with underlying conditions and those self-isolating were sent home our Jobcentre was down to around a third of its normal staff level. This has risen slightly as some workers’ self-isolation ends.
Over a million new Universal Credit claims have been made, and all staff have been moved onto contacting claimants by phone to process new claims. Around seven backroom staff from DWP HQ have been redeployed to our Jobcentre, and we are currently training them to handle claims using the new streamlined process.
The process essentially involves verifying housing costs, children, capital or savings, self-employment, immigration status etc., but now, to speed up the process, based on the information given by the claimant and without requesting any evidence. Management maintain that somewhere down the line, someone will be going through these claims and requesting the evidence retrospectively. Given we are talking about several million individual verifications, this seems fanciful.
All routine and work-search-related appointments have been cancelled and the requirement to accept a “claimant commitment” outlining job search requirements has been suspended. In practice that suspends the “sanction regime”. The “standard allowance” has gone up by £20 a week.
But people who have had no or little experience with the benefits system will discover its harshness runs much deeper than sanctions. Rules like the extremely harsh cap on housing element for single claimants under 35 (very few of whom will have their full rent paid), or ineligibility based on savings or immigration status, will be a rude awakening for many who never expected to rely on benefits.