Many low paid and part-time workers are dependent on welfare benefits to bring their income to a level which meets their essential expenditure. This unfortunate fact goes against the prevailing narrative of work-shy, undeserving poor prevalent in the media and used by government to justify deep cuts to the welfare state. While it might be argued that the state ought not to top up low wages through in-work benefits and through tax credits in particular, it is unavoidable while wage stagnation continues and living costs inexorably rise, and no amount of pontificating about minimum wage levels will solve this problem.
Being in receipt of in-work benefits requires a great deal of application from the claimant, and the worker faces a great deal of pressure to immediately report any changes to their rate of pay and to provide supporting evidence of that. And this is where an obstructive, delinquent or simply disorganised employer can have a seriously deleterious effect on the lives of their workers.
This post describes some of the ways in which employers’ actions, whether motivated by a desire to maximise profit, avoid scrutiny from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or to circumvent National Minimum Wage legislation, can result in a knock-on effect which reduces or stops the worker’s benefit income and puts their quality of life, home and health at risk.
Not supplying payslips
The right to a payslip is enshrined in the Employment Rights Act 1996 but is flouted by many delinquent employers. All in-work benefits require the claimant to provide evidence of their income, and if they cannot, their benefits may be stopped and they may be asked to pay back any benefit previously received. Additionally, while any investigation is being carried out, the claimant’s benefits will be suspended, causing additional hardship and often pushing people into rent arrears and other debts. For example, at Citizens Advice Barnet we recently advised a client who had worked part-time for two employers. One had offered her extra hours, so she accepted and gave up her other job. She reported the change of circumstances to the benefits authorities, as she was obliged to do, but when they requested evidence in the form of payslips, her employer refused to provide them, saying that he had never given anyone payslips and did not intend to start now. Her benefits were suspended and she fell into financial hardship – and the employer continued to refuse to provide evidence of the hours she was working. Latterly he produced hand-written payslips covering a short period, which he sat down and wrote in from of the client, each with a different pen. These contained inaccurate information so were useless as evidence of anything. The employee had to appeal the benefits decisions – and the benefits were ultimately reinstated – but her stress and hardship caused by the employer shirking his statutory duty were damaging and completely unnecessary.
Late payment of wages
Late payment, while it causes cashflow problems, does not usually affect in-work benefits. However, where it can cause real problems is when a person loses their job and makes a claim for Universal Credit (UC). UC is gradually being introduced across England and Wales as a replacement for almost all other benefits – paid as a single monthly payment. The problem that late payment causes arises in quite specific circumstances. If someone claims UC, they are subject to a 4-week ‘assessment period’ during which their income for that period is used to calculate their entitlement. If they leave work having received their final pay and them claim UC, there should be no problem – but when the final payment is wrong, as it often is, and the employer pays the difference later (which will usually include accrued holiday pay, notice pay etc), then that will be counted as income for the assessment period (even though it should have already been received) and the claimant will have to wait a further 4 weeks before they can receive any UC. This illustrates well the complexity of the benefits system and the unintended consequences late payment can have. In effect, this will mean an additional 4 weeks where the claimant is unable to pay their rent or feed their family.
Zero Hours contracts
For a person on a zero hours contract, reconciling that with an ongoing claim for in-work benefits creates enormous complexity and an administrative headache for the worker. In order to avoid potential overpayment of benefit and the resulting allegations of fraud, the employee has to report any change in earning to the benefits authority immediately. However, where there is a zero-hours contract, in some weeks the worker may have 40 hours of work, in other weeks 2 or 3. This means that their benefits payments will fluctuate along with their wages, but the benefits payments – particularly housing benefit which is paid in arrears – lag behind and make budgeting extremely difficult. Most people who are in low paid work will receive some housing benefit to enable them to top up their income to pay their rent, and where the housing benefit is paid directly to the landlord (as it often is), the claimant simply does not know how much to pay themselves to make up the difference. This all contributes to a feeling of helplessness and has the potential to lead to eviction if the landlord gets fed up with receiving fluctuating payments.
Deliberately avoiding liability for statutory payments
This happens most often in cases of female workers on zero hours contracts or contracts which state a low number of hours but where custom and practice means that the worker is actually working far in excess of the contractual position. Where these workers become pregnant, the employer has a duty to pay Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP). However, despite being able to reclaim this from the state, many employers, either because of a perceived administrative burden or from an ideological opposition to pregnant workers, will seek to avoid liability. The method is simple – gradually reduce the number of hours so that by the time the calculation for SMP is made, the earnings are below the qualifying level of £112 per week. This does take some application from the employer, as the calculation averages the gross pay for the 8 weeks before the 15th week before the date the baby is expected, so they really do need to think ahead in order to circumvent their employee’s rights.
These are only a few examples, but in combination with the zealous pursuit of benefits claimants by the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC (which has been well documented) where any question over entitlement is treated as potential fraud – in alignment with the prevailing media and government narrative – it is yet another instance of low paid workers being exploited, both by their employer and by the administrators of the safety net which is supposed to be there to help them.