The UK government has been paying the wages of almost nine million workers who are unable to do their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak. But what’s life like for the hundreds of thousands of people who can’t work and aren’t getting the money?
“It’s just the pits,” says Angela, a 48-year-old jewellery shop manager from Manchester. “It’s astonishing that you work for so many years and pay tax and there’s so little help.”
Angela started her new job on 16 March, just a week before non-essential retail closed down because of coronavirus.
When the government announced its furlough scheme – paying employees up to 80% of their salary, covering wages of up to £2,500 a month – she wasn’t covered, because it only applied to people who’d been in their job since at least 28 February,
Chancellor Rishi Sunak later extended furlough to people who had started work as recently as 19 March – but this still didn’t help Angela because her employer hadn’t put her details through HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) by that date.
Instead, she’s receiving Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) worth just over £300 a month – about a sixth of her normal income. And the JSA ends in eight weeks’ time.
Angela and her partner, a self-employed roofer whose earnings are patchy at the moment, have bills of £850 a month to pay and – when their payment holiday ends – a mortgage of £450 a month.
“Someone could have started in my job a few days earlier than me, having never worked before in their lives, and still got the full furlough payment of 80% of their wages,” she says. “And I get nothing, having paid tax for years. It’s just silly.”
Many shops have reopened but Angela’s hasn’t.
“With jewellery we have to be in close contact with people,” she says. “We have to look and see whether things fit or suit people. Customers are choosing important things, like their baby’s first bracelet or their engagement ring.”
Now laid off, she’s applying for other jobs, and has no idea when the jewellers is reopening and whether she can return.
“There’s literally nothing I can say or do that will make it any better,” Angela adds.
A report by the House of Commons Treasury Committee this week said more than one million people were losing out on coronavirus hardship payments.
This was often due to unfortunate timing in starting a job or their employer’s choice of timing in submitting payroll paperwork to HMRC.
The government was also failing to help those who had become self-employed within the last year and those whose companies had annual trading profits of more than £50,000, it said.
Freelancers and those on short-term contracts were suffering too.
Emma, a 29-year-old prop maker and set designer from Redditch, Worcestershire, has been registered as self-employed since December last year. Prior to that, she worked full-time for a company for a year.
She was about to start building models for a museum when coronavirus stopped the project. Her situation meant she couldn’t apply for furlough or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme payment of up to £7,500.
“My only option is to get a Bounce Back Loan,” Emma says, “but that means more debt, which I don’t want to take on, as I’ve also got to pay my tax bill by next January. “It’s really frustrating. Even if I get work now, there’s a delay before I get paid.”
Emma and her boyfriend pay rent and bills of about £1,000 a month and much of her work involves providing set designs and models for summer music festivals, which have been cancelled.
“There’s a huge gap in payments and a lot of people are falling into it,” she says. “At what’s already a difficult time for everybody, it’s not good for your mental health.”
Simon, a 62-year-old exams invigilator from south London, had his summer work cancelled. As a public sector worker who only works during exam periods, on short-term PAYE contracts, he does not qualify for furlough payments.
Similar contracts are frequently used in industries such as television and theatre.
“It’s getting desperate for a lot of people who rely on doing this work every year,” he says. “There are 15 of us in the school I work at. It’s not just sitting in exams. There are lots more jobs to do than that.”
Simon, who has a secondary school-age son and a daughter at university, fears that younger workers in particular will lose out.
“Something needs to be done to ensure that people can make a living and we don’t lose many years’ experience.”
The Treasury says its “swift and targeted” and “generous” payments during the pandemic have helped millions of workers and businesses.
But the committee report that highlighted this issue, while acknowledging the government has “acted at impressive scale and pace”, said it must do more to help those “locked out of support”.