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Keep Volunteering Voluntary

This is a piece I wrote for a campaign group called ‘Keep Volunteering Voluntary’.  They believe that forcing people on job seekers allowance to do forced ‘volunteer’ work or face benefit sanctions is wrong.  They, like me, truly believe that volunteering is a good thing, but only if you choose to do it.  What if you are sent to work for a charity that supports a cause you do not even believe in?  What if the work you are forced to do effects your health or mental well-being as it is unsuitable for you?  I wrote to the charity with my experiences of the forced work scheme as I was so shocked at what happened to me.  They then asked me to write a short blog about my experiences which they published on their website.  This is that blog:

On its website, key provider of welfare to work programmes, Pinnacle People claims it “can be relied upon to do the right thing”. Does that include leaving someone with the worry of sanctions over Christmas? Here’s an account of workfare in charity shops:

“Work Placements, as part of Mandatory Work Activity, were sold to me as a great opportunity to learn useful skills, gain valuable experience, enhance my CV and help my local community. Instead of seeing these schemes as something you’re expected to do in return for JSA, I began one with a positive and hopeful outlook. Well, it wasn’t long before I realised I’d been completely misled.

My first placement in a local charity shop, which was meant to go on for 6 weeks, lasted all of two days. The problem was they had far too many willing volunteers in the shop and frankly did not need forced ‘volunteers’ from the jobcentre. The shop was already using one other person on work experience and struggling to find enough for everyone to do. A private company called Pinnacle People, who deal with work placements on behalf of the jobcentre in my area, found it for me. On my first day, a work placement case worker from that company turned up. The charity shop manager made no mention of already having more than enough people and made it sound as if she could really use my help. But then she let me leave an hour early, saying as it was my first day that will do for now, when it was clear she had run out of tasks for me. On the second day she had me distributing leaflets in the area. When I got back she sent me out again with another big pile. By the time these ran out, I must have delivered one to almost every local home. I got the impression the manager was trying to keep me both busy and out-of-the-way. But there are only so many charity shop leaflets you can keep on posting through people’s letterboxes and, by the third day, she finally had to admit I was not actually needed. The manager sent me home and rang the jobcentre to cancel my placement. Instead of feeling pleased about no longer having to waste my time going there, my immediate reaction was fear that I would be sanctioned. The manager had to reassure me that she would make it clear to the jobcentre that the placement was ending through no fault of my own.

I was not sanctioned but told I’d have to go on another placement. Pinnacle People were, however, really struggling to find one. They said charity shops were either full with people from these schemes or had pulled out of them altogether. Then, with only two and half weeks till Christmas, they managed to find a shop that would take me. This one involved a much longer journey but turned out to be just as pointless as the first. Four of us had been sent there by the jobcentre to start on the same day. Even though it looked more like a jumble sale than a shop, there was no way it required another 4 people working there 5 days a week. I felt really messed around and decided to complain to my placement case worker. When she said it would help me find a job, I pointed I already had experience of working in retail, both in charity shops as a willing volunteer and in two other shops as a paid employee. So how exactly was this making a difference to my job prospects? When I kept on complaining about the placement, the case worker informed me that Pinnacle People were longer prepared to oversee my mandatory work activity. She said I was the first and only person they’d ever needed to effectively ‘ban’ from using their service. Then, just as I was trying not to laugh while feeling quite impressed with myself, she told me she’d have to inform the job centre about my attitude problem and all the things I’d complained about, which could affect my benefit.

JSA is my only source of income and my next appointment at the jobcentre was not until January. I spent all of Christmas and New Year not knowing my fate, wondering if I would soon be flat broke. But it turned out my benefit was not affected at all. As far as my advisor was concerned, there were simply no placements available for me. It seems she never heard the entire story so it looks like the case worker was just making empty threats and asserting her authority. I don’t yet know if I’ll be sent on another placement but think it’s probably unlikely. Where I live there are now few shops willing to be involved in these schemes, and we’re hardly short of charity shops in my town. I think this is a sign that campaigns like Keep Voluntary Volunteering could be working… “

The original blog post on Keep Volunteering Voluntary

Not Everyone On Benefits Is Trying to Cheat the System

‘Are you fed up with your hard-earned wages being given as ‘benefits’ to individuals in society who don’t deserve them?’
‘Zero tolerance against the work shy, freeloaders and benefit cheats drinking cheap ale, lapping up the sun rays well we slog it out in the offices and factories…..’ ‘Keeping Jeremy Kyle on the tele’.
The inaccuracy I read online about people on benefits can sometimes be amusing, but also sometimes makes me quite angry. I am on Job Seekers Allowance and have been for the best part of three years, but I do not drink ale, have not had a holiday abroad for over four years and have never appeared on the Jeremy Kyle show. These particular quotes come from groups on Facebook against people on benefits, but I have read similar comments on internet forums, on comments to newspaper articles and even heard people say things like this in person. I think in the last few years since the recession the comments about people on benefits have got nastier and more frequent. I think this has been fuelled by both politicians and the media.
The government needed something to cut in the budget, they tried cutting public spending on things like the NHS and education, but this was unpopular with almost all voters from every walk of life. What they needed was something they could cut spending on that did not affect their main core of voters, so they turned their attention to benefits and in particular those for the disabled and jobless. Statistically this makes little sense as the biggest benefit expense is in fact pensions, but no way were they going to touch pensions when older people are one of the main groups of people to vote. The disabled and the jobless are a lot less likely to vote, so the government have less issues with cutting their money. Now the government just had to get the rest of the general public to agree that cutting these benefits was a good thing. So they turned to their friends in the media, and boy did the right-wing press do them proud.
Tabloid newspapers love a benefit cheat story. They love to point out all the people who are able to get money whilst still working or living abroad. If you type benefit cheats into the news section of an internet search engine you would think that an awful lot of people are defrauding the system. However according to Citizens Advice Scotland benefit fraud represents only 2% of the estimated total annual fraud in the UK. In fact the amount of money paid to fraudsters is less than the amount overpaid or underpaid in error by the government. All this negative reporting of benefits seems to working.
To be on benefits long-term is seen as shameful to some people. These people have never had to be on benefits or at least not for more than a few weeks. I am on long-term job seekers, the way some people talk you would think I was a career criminal. I am trying very hard to get a job and do everything the job centre ask of me, even the stuff that makes no sense whatsoever. This is the only income I get and not that large an amount of money either. Without this money I would struggle to have any kind of life. I don’t want a fancy life, just enough of one so I do not go stark raving mad with boredom and loneliness. If more of the public were aware of what being on job seekers is like long-term, they might be less negative towards us. This coming week for example is not even a sign on week and I still have to go to the job centre twice for meetings.
I also used to be on Disability Living Allowance, which seems to get very negative reporting. A lot of people claim they know a neighbour is cheating the system, but I bet nine times out of ten that neighbour is fully entitled to that money. Not every disabled person is fully wheelchair bound and some have conditions that fluctuate giving them good and bad days. People see you on a good day and assume you are faking being disabled or ill. Getting money when being disabled was always fairly tricky, now Personal Independence Payments, replacing DLA are making it even harder. If someone gets PIPs you can rest assured they have probably been thoroughly checked out. No system any government can come up with will be totally fool-proof, someone will always find a way to cheat it for benefits, but the alternative of paying no benefits at all would be way more costly long-term.
Now I think one way to stop benefits being seen as so negative is for more people on them to vote. If the jobless and disabled voted more at elections the government might be less keen to cut their benefits and make them seem so negative. I call on all the disabled and jobless out there who can vote, to do so at the next election and show people that we are not all lazy benefit cheats and that we can and will stand up for ourselves.

Job Seekers Allowance and Mental Health

As you might already know from previous posts, I have been suffering with mental health issues most of my life.  Whilst I was at university I managed to get a lot of my mental health issues under control to a certain extent, yes they were clearly still there, but they were not as bad as they had been.  However since graduation and moving back home I have spent the vast majority of that time being unemployed and on job seekers allowance benefit.  Gradually I have found my mental problems getting worse again.  Partly this is due to living back at home with my parents after having got used to my independence at university, but the main factor is the ongoing unemployment.  Months and months of ongoing rejection from employers is going to get most people at least somewhat down.  Knowing that I am trying my hardest at every application form or cover letter I send and am being the best that I can be at interviews, but never get the job starts to make you doubt your self-worth as a person.  Right now however the thing most effecting my mental well-being is job seekers allowance.

I have anxiety issues, which are flaring up.  It is the not knowing from one day to the next what I will be doing.  This time next week I could have a job (although at this rate I doubt it), but also I keep getting sent to various places by the job centre.  Sometimes I get sent on courses, and recently I was sent on mandatory work activity.  This makes it hard to make any plans in advance.  For example do I agree to help look after my nephew next week so my sister-in-law can do work or not.

Mandatory work activity is when you have to go and do a community work placement to earn your job seekers, although they dress it up as work experience for your CV.  In reality this usually amounts to working in a charity shop for four weeks.  If you have no work experience on your CV at all, I can see this as being quite helpful, but I already have experience, including volunteer work in a charity shop.  Then there is the issue that you can’t just go and work in any charity shop, it has to be one that is signed up to the work placement scheme that you are placed with by the company who do this on behalf of the job centre.  Not that many charities are signed up to the scheme and quite a few charity shops have dropped out due to bad publicity for taking part in it or realising what they were taking on was basically forced volunteers.  Some places found that the client gets no say as to which charity they work for, so they could end up working for a cause they do not even believe in or care about.  My placement ended up going wrong when after two days the manager of the shop had to admit she already had too many willing volunteers and not enough work for us all.  They tried to place me elsewhere, but that proved tricky due to the lack of shops left in the scheme, so I had to wait each day not knowing when or if they would place me again.  Then the next placement went wrong when they had too many of us starting at once and I decided to open my big mouth about how I was feeling towards the scheme.  I have always had issues with speaking my mind too freely, whether this is due to my high functioning autism or not I do not know.  I felt like I had done well to only say what I did and knew I could have said much worse, but the woman in charge did not see it that way and I was told the company would no longer be placing me on any work activity, so in effect I was banned from mandatory work activity.  I was told the job centre would be informed of what happened and I could be sanctioned.  I then had to wait the whole weekend till I signed on to find out if they would cut off my only source of income for up to thirteen weeks or not.  Not only did I feel very anxious, but I felt totally depressed about it.  Like once again society had rejected me and now I could just have messed up my entire life.  I have anger issues which were surfacing again and I started to take out my frustration and anxiety on my parents who I live with.  I was yelling at them for silly minor things that did not matter and I was blaming then for things they had no control over.  I spent a whole day crying, sleeping and doing very little, mostly in my bedroom feeling utterly dejected.  I hated not knowing if I was going to get paid my next fortnight job seekers or not, I hated knowing I could get the blame from my advisor.  I had tried to do my first work placement and turned up to the second one.  I had done every other thing the job centre had sent me on or asked me to do and would be quite annoyed after all that to have my money stopped.  I worried that I might even regress further and end up having one of my full on temper blow-outs like I used to have, at the job centre advisor who informed me about a sanction.  They did not end up sanctioning me yet at least, but I am still not sure if they will later when my file is updated.

I have spent so much time in the last two years worrying about what the job centre will say when I have not applied for many jobs that fortnight or when I have had an interview and yet again failed to get the job.  I know that I tried to find work to apply for, but there simply was not any work I could do, however job centre staff still make me feel like it was my fault.  I then go away and feel like maybe it is my fault.  I hate being depressed on and off like this as I do not know when it will resurface next and I feel like giving up trying.  Job seekers allowance has made me feel like I have lost control somewhat over my own life and now I feel like it is stealing my control over my own emotions at times.  I do not want to feel angry or depressed every two weeks after sign on or an appointment with my advisor.  I do not want to be anxious about it.  I would just like to feel in total control of myself again.

 

 

 

Sitting around all day doing nothing? No chance!

OK so this time my blog is not so directly related to my disabilities, but I have to get this off my chest.

As a person on Job Seeker’s Allowance for a long time I have heard most of the negative comments and rude remarks  I think are possible to be said about people on benefits.  The most common of which is that I must be lazy, work shy and get money for doing nothing but sitting around all day.  Well I would like to tell you how much work it actually takes to remain on job seeker’s allowance long-term and how hard I am trying to get a job.

Daily Sign On

Yes that’s right, you read that correctly, I now sign on daily at the job centre.  Five days a week I have to go into town and sign at the job centre.  This happens to long-term job seekers when they have completed the work programme and live within so many miles of their nearest job centre.  Some who are deemed to live too far away are allowed to get out of this, but no doubt have some other tasks to do instead.  I live within walking distance, about twenty minuets away, however when poring down with rain I would still rather take the bus, which I have to then pay for out of my own money, hence why most days if dry I walk.  Mostly I do not mind the daily sign on as it is not that bad, but sometimes it can get silly.  Like when I was on a course recently that I chose to do to better my chances of work, they still made me rush back each day after the course to sign on and that was from the next town.  I had to get back before five when the job centre shut, I was lucky with buses and that some days we finished early on the course.  I did ask if I could sign on at Torquay job centre instead as it was literally across the road from the course centre, but no, that would be far to logical for them.

Work Programme

Before daily sign on, I used to sign once a fortnight at the job centre and go to my work programme provider.  My provider was Working Links in Torquay, so that meant a bus ride there and back once a fortnight.  Working Links did pay my bus fare back which helped a lot, but it still took up a lot of time.  I was supposed to be getting help from my case worker to get long-term work, but I was just sat at a computer and made to job search for an hour, and she would disappear for most of this hour just coming to check I was still there now and then.  I job search daily at home, how it helped to do it on another computer in another location I have no idea.  I complained about her lack of support and was given a new advisor.  To be fair to her she was nicer towards me and did spend our meetings talking with me one on one, but she still never did come up with any of these links to companies and jobs that Working Links are supposed to have.  After two years the work programme ended and daily sign on began.

Daily Job Search

I spend a good deal of time on the internet looking for work and applying to any jobs that I think I could get to and do.  I try to find at least one job a day to apply for, as I have found it is a numbers game, the more you apply to the more likely you are to get an interview.  Some jobs are just a simple matter of a cover email and attaching my CV, well I say simple, you still have to read the job description carefully and put the right key words in the cover letter.  A lot of jobs however now come with online forms, and the employer never even asks to see your CV.  Some online forms are fine, but some are very long.  Most supermarket jobs now even come with an online test to check your customer service skills and other basic competencies.  I also keep an eye out whenever I am in town for jobs being advertised in shop windows and always make enquiries about them if I can.

Job Interviews

I have had many interviews over the years and go to every single one I am offered if I can.  Before the interview I always research the company online and find out as much as I can.  I make sure in advance I know exactly where it is and how to get there so I am not late.  I try to dress appropriately and look like I made some kind of effort.  However it is not always obvious what kind of interview it will be, will it be one on one in the back office, a group interview with quite a few of us being given tasks to do together or a combination of both?  Some of the group tasks I have been given can seem a bit daft, as if head office has watched the apprentice and decided that is how they should do interviews.  I honestly try my best in every interview, but I never seem to get the job.

Job Trials

My first job trial was for a fish and chip shop last spring, I did three hours work and they gave me a free fish supper.  The next so-called trial was at a McDonald’s Drive Through, they called it a trial, but I only served two customers at the window and made up one cold drink!  Not sure how they could judge me on that as I am sure I was not there for more than ten minuets at the most.  I enjoyed a two-hour trial as a barrister in a Weatherspoons pub.  The current barrister showed me how to make various drinks and use the coffee machine and I thought I was getting the hang of it quite well, but clearly not well enough for them.  My last trial was a four-hour shift as a waitress in a restaurant at a local tourist attraction.  I liked the job and the other staff seemed nice, but no  job offer came from it.  I like job trials somewhat as I learn from them and gain more experience, but maybe they show employers that I am quite slow to pick up new practical tasks, although once I get the hang of them I am very good at them mostly.

Courses

I have been on two mandatory job seeker courses.  Both were run by charities who support people trying to get back into work.  Eat That Frog (the name still puzzles me) were not too bad in some ways, they did respect us as adults and tried not to be too patronising, but teaching us how to job search was a bit of a joke as if we could not job search we would have had our job seekers allowance stopped and not be on the course.  Active Plus was actually not a bad course, instead of looking at our CVs and changing them yet again, they did things with us to boost our confidence and teach us team work.  They are run by ex service men who were discharged from the army due to injuries or mental health issues.  It is a way for them to use some of the skills they learnt in the services to help others.  They introduced us to Learndirect, a place that runs courses to help job seekers get the qualifications they need.  I then went on to do a course  with Learndirect and am now qualified with a level two BTEC in hospitality and catering principles.  I loved my eight-day course with them as I learnt a lot including food hygiene which is often asked for in the jobs I go for.  The courses are all free to those on job seekers allowance and they offer you a lot of support along the way.

Volunteering

In the past I have done quite a lot of volunteer work.  This was partly to keep me occupied in the early faze of sign on, when less is asked of job seekers, partly to have more to put on my CV in terms of experience and because I enjoy helping others.  I have done various things including charity shop work, administration at my local children’s centre and as a front of house steward at a local theatre.  I found them all rewarding experiences and they gave me an insight into various job roles.  I would have gone back to volunteering, but right now the job centre are keeping me fairly well occupied with daily sign on, various courses and appointments.

Everything I do towards getting a job has to be written down both online and in my job seekers booklet.  I am not sure why I have to write it in two places, but I do.  Everything from every job I apply for, every interview I get, to every course day I attend.  Everyday when I sign on I have to take my booklet with me and show the advisor, despite them also being able to access my online record.  I update my CV regularly to make sure it has all the current relevant information an employer may want.  Then there is the cost of transport to every interview or job trial I get, which despite asking them nicely the job centre never pay me back.  I also footed the bill for the travel to my learndriect course which being in the next town was not cheap, but I saw it as an investment in my future so worth it.

This just goes to show how if I was sitting around all day doing nothing, they would of stopped my money a long time ago.  I also really do want to work and am trying my best.  Trust me job seekers is not the easy option.

Think I reached this point sometime ago

unemployment-cartoon