COVID-19 has brought with it unprecedented challenges for just about everyone, and the staff manning Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Jobcentres have been no exception.
As the lockdown swept across the country on March 23 and businesses shut their doors in droves, for many it meant sudden unemployment and the need to register an application for Universal Credit (UC). In the space of under a month in excess of 1.5 million new applications deluged in on DWP teams who themselves were attempting to cope with staff shortages due to self-isolation.
One of those thrown into the frontline was Employer and Partnership Manager Jane Munro, who is based in Forres. Like so many, the coronavirus was to turn the working world she knew so well upside down in the blink of an eye.
She said: “I think it’s fair to say I’ve never seen anything like this, I don’t think anyone has.
“My job usually is to help employers fill vacancies and work with customers in a number of ways so that the skills they have are best suited to the jobs which are out there.
“Normally I’m out and about all the time, meeting with employers and partner organisations, organising training, that sort of thing. When the coronavirus came along all of that was cancelled pretty quickly.”
As new applications flooded in at a rate never anticipated even in the worst of recessions, it was all hands to the pump and, for Jane, some re-training of her own.
She continued: “We basically had to get our sleeves rolled up as frontline operators.
“Applications were coming in at an unprecedented rate but we had lost about 30 per cent of our own staff due to them self-isolating or having health conditions. I asked the Forres Jobcentre manager what I could do to help and I underwent training on the UC system so I could do a frontline job on the phones helping new customers.
“It was all hands to the pump. By March 16 I was up and running for my new role dealing with customers but it was a steep learning curve. Fortunately the UC system was designed with ease of use in mind, both for us and for the customers.
“Alongside this, at first I was also thinking to myself that I’ve got two kids at home, I wasn’t sure what was happening with my husband’s job – he ended up being able to work from home – while we’re working extra hours so we could cover vulnerable customers, all of us doing what needed done.”
The old ways of dealing with new applications, which saw customers asked to phone a call centre in the first instance, soon fell by the wayside as the system had to bend in the hurricane of change brought in the wake of Covid-19.
A ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ policy was instituted and it was here Jane and her colleagues had a vital role to play as they followed up initial applications, usually to speak to customers to gain more information as to their circumstances to help progress their claims.
“As long as customers have activated a UC application we will get back and will respond to messages as soon as we possibly can,” Jane said.
“We’re doing what we can to support customers and answer their questions.
“One of the things I would like to stress to customers is please leave your mobile phones on to make it as easy as possible for us to reach you. The sooner we can speak to you and get the information we need, the sooner we can process your application and get your money on the way.
“It is important to realise there are jobs out there. The initial rush of supermarket vacancies we experienced have, in the main, been filled, but there are others. A lot of the current vacancies are in the care sector with the likes of seasonal posts such as fruit picking beginning to come in.”
Jane went on to say that the broad sweep of the lockdown meant that the new customers contacting the DWP to claim UC were a similarly wide cross-section of the workforce in terms of sector, age, experience, full-time and part-time. Many were uncertain what would be happening to their jobs, whether the business they worked for would fall through or they would end up on the government’s Job Retention Scheme where 80 per cent of a furloughed employee’s wages would be paid.
Furloughed employees may still be able to claim UC to tide them over, depending on their circumstances, and Jane was keen for those who find themselves in these circumstances to check www.gov.uk and Job Retention Scheme for further information. Furloughed employees can get an outline of how much they may be entitled to by using the benefits calculator at https://www.gov.uk/benefits-calculators
Helping people who are often frightened after having their world thrown to the winds has proved to be a very satisfying experience for Jane in what has been a journey into the unknown, in many respects.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to help and reassure people, who have been very appreciative of what we’re trying to do.
“I’m very proud to work for the DWP at this time, to see everyone mucking in. I’m impressed with the way the system has coped with the unprecedented strain of 1.5 million new claims in two or three weeks.
“It’s coped, it hasn’t crashed and we’re getting payments out on time.
“As I said, personally it’s been a steep learning curve but it’s given me a far better understanding of UC which will help me a lot in my job going forward.”
Applicants can get an outline of how much they may be entitled to by using the benefits calculators.
- Policy in Practice – for information on income-related benefits, tax credits, contribution-based benefits, Council Tax Reduction, Carer’s Allowance, Universal Credit, how these are calculated and how your benefits will be affected if you start work or change your working hours
- entitledto – for information on income-related benefits, tax credits, contribution-based benefits, Council Tax Reduction, Carer’s Allowance, Universal Credit and how your benefits will be affected if you start work
The ERSA Employability Awards 2020
This year, there is a new award category, recognising a Jobcentre Plus office that has demonstrated exceptional commitment in partnering with providers in their area, supporting disadvantaged and long-term unemployed jobseekers. https://ersa.org.uk/ERSAAwards20
This article was written by Alan Beresford, original post via Grampian Online.