Thousands still won’t be helped by Government’s new starter furlough changes

Tens of thousands of people who recently started new jobs are in dire financial straits after being excluded from the Government’s furlough scheme. Chris Burn reports.

“When I realised I wouldn’t qualify, I just burst into tears. I spent nearly two hours crying on the end of my bed,” says Sharon Brogden, one of tens of thousands of people now in desperate financial trouble after being excluded from the Government’s furlough scheme through no fault of their own.

“In the past three weeks, I have been lucky if I have slept two hours in a night. I’m having nightmares and get up thinking about it all. I’ve tried taking herbal sleeping remedies but nothing works.”

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Sharon, a single parent with a 14-year-old daughter from Liversedge in West Yorkshire, was among the millions of workers who were intensely relieved when Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on March 20 that the Government would pay 80 per cent of the wages of employees placed on furlough by their companies as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Clockwise from top: Sharon Brogden, Jordan Cummings, Jemma Bell and Mandy Driver.Clockwise from top: Sharon Brogden, Jordan Cummings, Jemma Bell and Mandy Driver.
Clockwise from top: Sharon Brogden, Jordan Cummings, Jemma Bell and Mandy Driver.

But a few days later, it became clear there was a major catch in the fine print for the scheme - anyone who had started a new job after February 28 would not be eligible. It meant hundreds of thousands of people who had started new jobs in March or were due to do so were left in a terrifying limbo.

The Government initially told people in this position to ask their previous employers to furlough them instead but many were rejected or ignored by their past companies.

Many were offered a brief ray of hope last Wednesday when the Treasury announced the cut-off date for eligibility would be March 19 - but with the crucial caveat that the worker had to be on their new company’s payroll by that point, a decision that has excluded a large proportion of those being paid monthly.

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Office for National Statistics figures show over 85 per cent of British workers are paid either monthly or every four weeks.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19) on April 8. Picture: Pippa Fowles/Crown Copyright/10 Downing Street/PA WireChancellor Rishi Sunak during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19) on April 8. Picture: Pippa Fowles/Crown Copyright/10 Downing Street/PA Wire
Chancellor Rishi Sunak during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19) on April 8. Picture: Pippa Fowles/Crown Copyright/10 Downing Street/PA Wire

The precise numbers affected by the new starter exclusions are unclear but the ONS told The Yorkshire Post that in the three months between October and December 2019 (its most recent data), over 1.9 million people either moved jobs or found employment having previously been unemployed or “economically inactive” - suggesting hundreds of thousands of people will have started new roles in March.

The Government said on Wednesday that around 200,000 workers were expected to benefit from the March 19 date change. But of the 17 people The Yorkshire Post has spoken to for this article, just two say the rule change now allows them to be furloughed.

Sharon started a new job as a finance and accounts manager on March 16 having previously run her own business but deciding it would not be viable after using up her savings on it and being unable to turn a profit. She worked in her new job for just a week before lockdown measures were ordered.

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The other 14 members of staff at her work have been furloughed but she has been put on unpaid leave.

Zoe Porter is among those affected.Zoe Porter is among those affected.
Zoe Porter is among those affected.

“As I am technically still employed and on unpaid leave, I have a job waiting for me, I cannot start a new claim for Universal Credit. I have contacted them using the online UC journal eight or nine times in the last 10 days and have not received a reply to any of my messages,” she says.

“For the foreseeable future I have no income, no access to Universal Credit and hardly any savings left. I am a single parent with a mortgage. I have regularly organised fundraising events and raised thousands of pounds for charities and vulnerable groups, yet now, I am collateral damage.”

Sharon’s mother has lent her money after having a holiday cancelled. She says that money should last for three to four weeks but she fears what will happen after that - with even the option of selling her house effectively closed off at present.

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“At the moment I can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. If it carries on, we will be out on the streets as I can’t afford to pay for anything.”

Sharon says she quickly realised that Wednesday’s announcement of the change in cut-off date would not help her because of her experience in working with payrolls and the position was subsequently confirmed by her company.

“There is a Facebook group of around 7,000 of us and a vote was done on whose situation would be changed by the change in date. Around 700 people voted and just two per cent said it would help them. It only really helps people who are paid weekly, which isn’t that common.

“The change in date makes no difference whatsoever. We just want the Government to give the power of furlough to the new employers - it is not that difficult and there are plenty of people now who will have been paid at the end of March so can prove it is a genuine job.”

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She says people have had their hopes dashed by realising even the change in cut-off date will not help them. “It is like shooting the wounded.”

On March 25, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament the Government was “putting our arms as a country around every single worker, every single employee”. But on April 8, Sunak struck a different tone as he said the emergency measures had been designed to “minimise the risk of fraud”.

He added: “That means some people might fall between through the cracks, it means people are saying, ‘Can you not do it this way, can you include us?’, and the reason we’ve not been able to do that is to protect against exactly that, exactly the risk of fraud or spurious claims that we won’t be able to verify. So I’m confident the decisions we’ve made will minimise the risk of fraud.”

Like the other new starters The Yorkshire Post has spoken to, Sharon says she and her employer can easily prove she was in a genuine job.

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“I have a signed offer letter, one week of computerised clocking in data, a payslip for the week I have worked and I am expecting a P60 very shortly. If that is not enough evidence then I don’t know what is.”

Mandy Driver from Wakefield is another person facing problems paying her bills. She had been due to start a new job as an office manager in Leeds on April 1 but with her new firm’s office shut she currently cannot start work.

She says approaching her old employer - the idea initially suggested by the Government - proved to be a humiliating experience, especially when she was rejected twice.

“I felt ashamed, embarrassed and degraded, comparable to Oliver Twist with begging bowl in hand.

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Universal Credit doesn’t cover my bills, even with mortgage holiday and council tax holiday in place, let alone food. My new employer would happily furlough me, but isn’t allowed under current rules.

“We are all stressed, anxious, desperate and our mental health is suffering. We’re not asking for special treatment, we just want what everyone else is getting. We’ve paid into the pot all our working lives, but are not allowed to take out of the pot when needed, just because we changed jobs at the wrong time.”

As an asthmatic who uses steroid inhalers, Mandy is not able to apply for any frontline work that has become available due to the pandemic as a result of being at high risk should she get coronavirus. She says she is currently reliant on financial support from family and friends.

“One of my neighbours bought me an essentials delivery from the supermarket and wouldn’t take any money for it. I was really overwhelmed by that,” she says. “But I’m extremely worried. The mental stress of it all is awful.”

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Another person whose life has been turned upside down is 24-year-old Jordan Cummings, who lives in Leeds and started a new job in the recruitment industry on March 23. After two weeks of working from home, he was made redundant by his new company who said he would have kept him on if they could have accessed the furlough support.

Jordan says he is now desperately trying to find another job but currently faces being unable to pay his rent and potentially move back home to live with his parents back in the Isle of Wight - if he is even allowed to make the 240-mile journey.

“I have applied for Universal Credit and been told you won’t find out if you have been successful until May 5 and there will be no payment until May 9. Even then it will be a maximum of £400 per month and my rent is £420 per month.

“It will become a choice between eating and paying rent. I have been applying for everything - warehouse work, driving work, care work, even jobs in a funeral home; things that will be quite high risk.”

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He says he struggles to believe how people who have moved jobs have been treated by the Government.

“It feels like we have been forgotten about. I have got penalised for trying to advance my career.”

Jemma Bell, from Doncaster, started her dream job as a hotel wedding co-ordinator on March 17, having previously worked at Doncaster Council.

While the hotel has kept her on reduced hours that she is juggling with home-schooling her children and she has been offered her old job back by the council, Jemma says the issue needs to be kept in the spotlight.

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She says she is among the many who have not been helped by the change in date.

“It is like they have tried to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. It looks good on paper but it is only going to help a very limited number of people.

“The whole thing is an emotional rollercoaster - you think they have changed it then you actually look into it and realise they haven’t really.

“Many many people are not as fortunate as I have been. I feel like it’s active discrimination as we are being penalised through no fault of our own, all we did was change jobs at the worst time ever, mostly in an effort to better our careers.”

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Zoe Porter, from Yeadon, has been left with no income after starting a new job with Jet2 at Leeds Bradford Airport on March 9. Having previously worked as a freelancer designer following the birth of her son in 2015, Zoe does not have the option of asking her previous employer to be furloughed and is not receiving benefits as her partner is still in work.

She says while the family is fortunate to have money coming into the house, it is still an uncomfortable position to be in.

“It is really depressing. I have always supported myself financially and now I simply can’t do it. We are not rich or anything but thankfully we will get by.

“I still don’t fully understand why new starters don’t qualify.

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“It just makes you want to bang your head against the wall. Effectively I will have to go cap in hand to my partner and ask for money like in the olden days.”

Jennifer Thompson, from Doncaster, started a new role in compliance on March 2. But she was made redundant on March 17 along with other staff members due to the pandemic. She has now been left with no income and believes approaching her former employer would be a “pointless exercise” after hearing of how others have been turned down by other companies.

“I am unable to get any Universal Credit due to living with my partner who is still in work as a retail manager. Neither of us are highly paid so going onto one income has made things incredibly tight. I’m thankful that we gave secured a mortgage holiday for three months but I am very worried about how we will pay for the mortgage once this period is up. We have only been in our new house for eight months.”

One person who has had good news as a result of the date change is Kirsty Morris from West Yorkshire who started a new job on March 2 and was being paid weekly. “I am extremely happy and relieved although sad at the same time as I know it doesn’t cover everyone. I believe I’m only one of a few people that it has helped, I’ve been very grateful for everything that everyone in the campaign has done to get this result. It’s just a shame they couldn’t be included too.”

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Rishi Sunak has won widespread praise for the measures he has announced to protect workers during the pandemic, but for those who started new jobs in March, their perception is very different.

Sharon says: “I don’t watch the news or the press conferences any more. I’m not looking at that man every again. He has destroyed my finances and what kind of future have I got?

“We need to raise awareness of what is happening beneath the surface. There are so many thousands and thousands of people affected by this.”

Government says change will help 200,000 workers

The Government has said the change in the cut-off date for new starters to qualify for furlough is expected to help over 200,000 workers.

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A statement from the Treasury said: “This change makes the scheme more generous while keeping the substantial fraud risks under control and is expected to benefit over 200,000 employees.

“HMRC have been working at pace to delivering the scheme. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is part of an unprecedented package of measures announced by the Chancellor to protect individuals and businesses.

“This includes significant support for the self employed and immediate steps to give businesses access to cash to pay its rent, salaries or suppliers.”

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