By The Team - 04 July 2020
The past few months since lockdown began have been our busiest ever. At the end of March, the team locked up the office, grabbed their laptops, and took casework home. Our advisors tackled a record number of 300 new cases, discovering new vulnerabilities and deepening inequalities during the pandemic. The fact that furlough was a possibility, not a right, left many of our beneficiaries dismayed. We saw a spike in redundancies, risks of eviction and food poverty. We witnessed the anxiety generated by a Universal Credit system which penalises applicants with informal living arrangements, and barely covers living costs. When beneficiaries made the brave decision to fight injustice, their cases were slowed down when hearings or even simple correspondence from the Employment Tribunal became delayed. Above all, we saw the impact of a slowdown in economic activity upon people who had built their whole sense of self around an ability to work hard.
We are now slowly returning to our office - recently decked with plexiglass screens and dotted with disinfectant bottles. The team is working in shifts to deal with cases requiring face-to-face consultation, like helping with EU Settlement Scheme applications. Much like other organisations right now, our charity is unsure of what our work will look like as lockdown is eased.
In this case study, we feature the voices of our case workers as they step back and take stock of the past few months. The team shares their most memorable cases, amusing anecdotes, and fresh reflections from service provision during the pandemic. This view from the grassroots not only highlights the hard inequalities made evident by the pandemic. It also showcases the significant role played by charitable organisations in times of crisis.
‘To bring you a bunch of flowers and give you all a huge hug’ (by Adelina Cega)
Adelina, our Service Manager, dwells on her most memorable case during the pandemic or what she describes as the ‘Universal Credit irony of the month’. Her story explains the mystification of benefit applications and what this means in the lives of workers in dire need of financial support:
In May 2020, a Romanian woman called Mrs Popa reached out to the Work Rights Centre in tears. Dismissed after 4 years with no notice or redundancy pay, she was at a loss as to what to do next. We advised her to apply for Universal Credit to cover essential living costs, but she swiftly dismissed this suggestion. Mrs Popa explained that she had been in the same situation in the past and only received £10 worth of benefits. I clarified that her circumstances warrant more support and encouraged her to apply. Mrs Popa agreed reluctantly, and applied for Universal Credit. She was shocked and over the moon to realise that she must have completed the form incorrectly on previous occasions.
With the help of the team, Mrs Popa also made a claim to the Employment Tribunal for redundancy and notice pay. Awaiting her decision, she is looking forward to the WoRC offices opening again ‘to bring you a bunch of flowers and give you all a huge hug’, as she puts it. Our help meant she could access much needed financial support during the Covid-19 pandemic. It also meant that Mrs Popa had a chance to reflect on her rights as a worker and seek compensation from her employer.
‘A forced spring holiday’ (by Andrei Savitski)
My most memorable case over the past few months was that of a Ukrainian man - let's call him Danylo. An agency worker, Danylo struggled to get hold of his contract and received no written agreement of the terms of his furlough - even though this was a necessary document according to government guidelines. Upon further enquiry, Danylo discovered that he also ‘enjoyed’ a forced one-week paid holiday back in March. Not the best sort of spring holiday, is it? But that was just the beginning. About one month later, Danylo received his furlough grant for April and realised it was 1.5 smaller than it should have been. At that point, he turned to WoRC. With his permission, we contacted the manager. Danylo swiftly received the correct furlough grant for May – one day after our email! Wanting to put this dispute behind him, Danylo wishes to leave the job and claim unpaid wages and holiday pay at the Employment Tribunal. As he waits to receive the grant for June, Danylo’s story continues.
While Danylo’s case may be surprising, it illustrates the everyday uncertainties and employment rights violations that many workers, in particular Eastern European workers, have to face. Unscrupulous employers and agencies often rely on workers not daring to ask for their ‘papers’, only to exploit their labour. During the pandemic, new government regulations like the furlough scheme created a novel opportunity for unscrupulous bosses to underpay their workers and deny their rights.
‘Child benefit troubles’ (by Lora Tabakova)
During a virtual outreach event, I met a father who had a query about the timeline for Child Benefit applications. The man was confused since he applied in February 2020, received a letter confirming that the benefit was approved, but by June he was yet to see a penny. When asked whether he applied himself, the man explained that an acquaintance had helped him fill in the form. Most probably, the 'well-wishing' acquaintance wrote down their own bank details and is enjoying the Child Benefit entitlement. I found this case so memorable since it reminded me of the many other ways through which cunning individuals are taking advantage of honest, but vulnerable people. While our focus during the Covid-19 pandemic has been on the self-employed income support scheme or the furlough scheme, other types of benefits are also being denied to our beneficiaries by so-called helpful friends and acquaintances.
‘Lost in translation, even in the same language’ (by Alexandra Ivanuta)
My Covid-19 service provision has been incredibly varied, from writing CVs to coping with the consequences of unlawful evictions. One of the most memorable cases was helping a Romanian beneficiary register her newborn to their local GP surgery. Since the client spoke very little English, the whole process required a lot of back-and-forth between me, the mother, and the GP surgery. Even though we were speaking our native language, I struggled to explain what an NHS number is and where to find it on the hospital discharge letter. On the other end, liaising with the NHS became lengthier and more challenging because of the pandemic. After many hours on the phone and filing online forms, I am proud to confirm that the baby is booked for his first round of immunisations.
Alexandra’s case serves as a reminder of how difficult it can be to successfully navigate bureaucratic processes with beneficiaries. Although they were both speaking their native languages, explaining the ins and outs of the NHS system posed a significant challenge. Much like Mrs Popa’s case with which we started, navigating bureaucracy in a different country and language can be challenging and leaves workers unable to access the support and services they need. During the pandemic, this type of case work is made even more taxing by the current strain on the system.
‘Why so many questions?’ (by Bethany Birdsall)
Earlier this month, a beneficiary called with many questions about the furlough scheme, his rights at work, and ways to ensure his safety once back on the job. At the end of the call, I asked if he would stay on the line to answer some questions. We need to ask a long list of questions to log our beneficiaries’ details into our database. We then use this data to analyse client demographics, make funding bids, and better understand the problems we are facing. He gladly agreed. Yet, after a few minutes of me asking him about his CV skills, dependants, and educational background, he interrupted me and exclaimed ‘Why so many questions?’. It struck me as funny since he had just finished apologising for asking me so many questions only moments earlier.
The impact of case work
This encounter made Bethany reflect on the types of questions we ask our beneficiaries and how arbitrary some of them might seem. While we take it for granted that employability is directly connected with precarious work, our beneficiaries might not consider CV skills relevant to their problems on the job. Instead, they might rely on social connections and personal resilience to find work. As a small charity, we pay close attention to each beneficiary and their personal circumstances. Understanding all the interconnected spheres of experience when it comes to precarious employment is what sets our work apart.
Building on these reflections and anecdotes, the grassroot view of service provision offers a powerful insight into the consequences of Covid-19 on work and employability. The team’s most memorable cases uncover the new inequalities and patterns of exploitation unfolding during the pandemic. Like in Danylo’s story as recounted by Andrei, many dishonest employers use new government regulations to profit off the back of honest workers. The furlough and self-income support scheme provide new ground for unscrupulous employers and agencies to sidestep workers’ rights. At the same time, the pandemic also emphasises many continuities. As Lora explains in her reflection, our beneficiaries continue to be robbed of the financial support they need by fraudsters and scammers. Pre-existing difficulties with bureaucracy and accessing services are also heightened by the pandemic. In both Alexandra and Adelina’s reflections, beneficiaries who struggle with the language in turn struggle to navigate the bureaucratic processes that come with accessing the support and services they need.
Besides these challenges and new inequalities, what the pandemic shows above all is the powerful impact of a small team of case workers. It shows us that despite working apart and sharing limited resources, we are stronger than ever when we come together. Whether in securing Mrs. Popa’s Universal Credit or booking a newborn’s first vaccines, our team impacted the lives of hundreds of UK and EU citizens over the past three months. And despite the uncertainty for the upcoming months, one thing stays the same. Our multilingual team of case workers remains dedicated to eradicate precarious working conditions and help workers find work that is safe and fairly paid.← Case Studies