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Benefits, employment and coronavirus

Denise, our experienced benefits adviser, answers your questions about how coronavirus might affect your employment and benefits.

If you're concerned about the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, The Brain Tumour Charity provides a free Benefits and Money Clinic twice a week. Appointments are available by phone, so this service will continue during the social distancing measures.

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Should I be going to work during social distancing?

Right now, government advice is to avoid any unnecessary contact with other people. This is known as ‘social distancing’ which includes working from home, if you can.

If you can’t work from home, your employer should help you find ways to avoid unnecessary contact. This could be:

  • letting you travel at a time when public transport is less busy
  • not asking you to go to meetings, or arranging to hold them online
  • finding car parking spaces so more vulnerable employees don’t have to travel on public transport.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition which would make you very vulnerable to coronavirus, such as an autoimmune illness, it might be more important for you to work from home. If your medical condition means that you're a disabled person, your employer is required to consider this as a 'reasonable adjustment' under the Equality Act 2010.

Acas are an organisation that provides free advice to employees and employers. They've just released some advice on ways you and your employer can support each other during this difficult time.

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What if I also need to look after my children?

Speak to your employer if you need to take time off work to look after your children. In an emergency, you’re entitled to take time off to make sure your children are looked after. This is known as dependant leave.

Your employer can’t refuse you dependant leave if you have no other choice, and you can’t be disciplined or sacked for taking the time off. However, you’re not automatically entitled to full pay and what an employer will pay can vary.

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What if I’m off sick or told to stay home because of coronavirus?

If you're following government guidance because you have coronavirus symptoms, you'll be considered unfit for work. You'll also be considered unfit for work if you're staying at home, or 'self-isolating', because you've been in contact with someone with coronavirus.

You'll get statutory sick pay (SSP) if you're considered unfit for work and are usually entitled to it. If you’re not entitled, your employer will give you an SSP1 form that you can then use to claim benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) depending on your circumstances.

It's also worth checking your contract - your employer might pay you more than SSP when you're sick. This is called contractual sick pay.

If you're not sick but have been told to self-isolate and can't work from home, you should still get your contractual sick pay on top of SSP up to a maximum of your full salary.

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What if my employer needs to close my workplace?

Your employer may want to plan in case they need to close your workplace temporarily. This could be a very difficult time for both employers and staff. It’s a good idea to make sure you have a way to communicate with your employer and your colleagues by keeping your contact details up-to-date.

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What if I’m laid-off or asked to work fewer hours?

In some situations, an employer might need to close down their business for a short time, or ask staff to reduce their contracted hours (called ‘short-time’ working). If the employer thinks they'll need to do this, it's important they talk with staff as early as possible and throughout the closure.

Unless it says in your contract or is agreed otherwise, they still need to pay you for this time. An employer can ask you not to attend work but they’d have to pay you, unless there’s a clause in your contract which allows them to suspend you without pay in specific circumstances. Have a read through your contract to check in advance if this is something that could possibly happen where you work.

Employees who are laid off and aren’t entitled to their usual pay might be entitled to a 'statutory guarantee’ payment of up to £29 a day from their employer. This is limited to a maximum of five days in a three-month period. On days when a guarantee payment is not payable, employees might be able to claim Jobseekers Allowance from Jobcentre Plus instead.

If you’re an agency worker or on a zero hours contract, you probably aren’t entitled to be paid if your employer instructs you not to come to work. If you’re in this situation, you should speak to your employment agency or employer and check your contract.

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Can I be let go from my job because of coronavirus?

There could be situations where you’re let go from your job because of a business going into administration or having to downsize, which means you’re being made redundant. If you’ve been employed for two years or more you’d be entitled to a redundancy payment, although even if it's a genuine redundancy and you've received a redundancy payment it may be an unfair dismissal in some circumstances and you should seek advice.

If you're let go because of something related to coronavirus, such as time off work, you should get legal advice as soon as possible as you only have three months to take any action if the dismissal is unfair.

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What if I’m self-employed?

You can't get SSP if you're self-employed. If you have to take time off work and you don't get paid while you're off, you might be entitled to claim benefits. If you're already claiming benefits, you might get more money.

If you already get benefits like Tax Credits or Housing Benefit, tell the office paying you that you can't work because you're sick or having to self-isolate. You might be entitled to more money while you're off work.

If you're not claiming any benefits you might be entitled to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or Universal Credit to top up your income or help you with rent payments.

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What if I’m claiming benefits or asked to go to a medical assessment?

You should go to your usual appointments - for example at the Jobcentre Plus. The government has postponed all face-to-face medical assessments such as for ESA, Universal Credit or PIP.

If you can't go to your appointment because you're ill or are following guidance to self-isolate, call the office paying your benefit. You'll need to explain why you can't go.

If you're claiming Universal Credit, you'll need to use your online journal to explain why you can't go to your appointment.

If you call the office paying your benefit or update your online journal, you won't be sanctioned if you don't go to your appointment.

If you're already getting the benefit, you'll continue to get it if you have to cancel your appointment because of coronavirus.

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Is there any other financial help available to me?

Mortgages and credit cards

The government has asked the mortgage companies to offer a three-month payment holiday to anyone with a mortgage who is struggling to pay due to coronavirus.

What this means is that for up to three months you may not have to pay your mortgage and those three months will be added on at the end of the mortgage term, so you’ll pay the same amount but your mortgage will end three months later. It’s important you contact your mortgage company immediately if you’re having difficulty and keep them up to date with the situation.

There have been similar calls for people with credit cards and while you should prioritise your mortgage or rent payments, it’s also important you keep the credit card company up to date with your situation and ask them for help if you’re having difficulty making a payment.

Some credit card companies are already contacting their customers asking them to get in touch if they’re having difficulty.

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There’s also been some help offered to tenants who can’t afford their rent. The government has announced measures to protect tenants from eviction for at least three months, so during this time no-one can be evicted for rent arrears, either from social housing or privately rented accommodation. Don’t forget there’s also help with rent available through the benefits system for people on low incomes, and that eventually all rent arrears will need to be paid.

If you're struggling to pay your rent, talk to your landlord straight away. You should explain the situation and you could ask for more time to pay or to catch-up any missed payments by installments once the situation improves. If you can't come to an agreement with your landlord, it's a good idea to pay what you can afford anyway and keep a record of what you offered.

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About the author

I’m a financial inclusion project worker with Citizens Advice in Rushmoor and work with The Brain Tumour Charity twice a week to help deliver their Benefits and Money Clinic. I use my 40+ years of experience working closely with the benefits system to help people affected by brain tumours claim the benefits they’re entitled too and manage their finances with reduced or limited income.

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