Unemployment has risen to its highest level in five years, with 1.7 million Brits now jobless as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rock the jobs market and ruin lives.
In the three months leading up to November, there were 418,000 more people out of work since the same time last year, according to new figures from the Office of National Statistics, a rise not seen since the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis.
Workers have told the Big Issue of going from a comfortable wage to scraping by on £97-a-week Universal Credit payments, or seeing their dream career dashed to work in a Covid-19 test centre instead. Others have faced rejection after rejection in search of a new job.
Vacancies made a slow recovery between October and December 2020 with an estimated 578,000 vacancies on the jobs market – but that rise of 81,000 is half the increase seen between July and September.
That would tally with Dean Nicholson’s experience of being out of work. The 43-year-old from Leeds has seen his pay plummet since losing his job last July, from £1,600 per month to just £97 a week.
After losing his role as an account manager for a vehicle renting firm in Leeds last summer, his efforts to get a new job have been greeted with closed doors. Mr Nicholson told The Big Issue that he had applied for 47 jobs in the meantime and received only three replies.
There is nothing out there and it feels like it is one job to 1,000 applications
“It’s not through lack of trying, I’m not even precious.” he said. “I’m talking Christmas work, nights at Marks and Spencers and Asda, cleaning, really thinking outside the box from what I normally do but everything is nope, nope, nope.
“I get frustrated because I’m a gay single male who lives on his own and when you’re in this position you get forgotten about. £97 a week for everything it’s just not good enough. It just doesn’t last and you’re below the poverty line.
“Getting £380 a month down from £1,600 is life-changing.”
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Mr Nicholson was placed on furlough in March and then made redundant from his job in July. He applied for Universal Credit and took a £250 advance to help him through the five-week wait for a first payment, which means he has £17 deducted from his current benefit payments.
Mr Nicholson, who used to work for debt charity StepChange, was allowed to defer his debts on loans and a credit card until December but has been unable to pay them off since and said that debt collectors are now chasing repayment.
The impact of the Leeds native’s six months out of work has had a devastating effect on his life and he credits pet dog Peggy the pug with getting him through the spell.
Mr Nicholson told The Big Issue: “My mental health has been really bad, I’ve gone on to anti-depressants because I’ve had anxiety, I’ve not been sleeping, I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster all the time. It’s mind over matter sometimes.
“I’m sick of filling out applications and getting nowhere. It’s so time consuming and I’m so exhausted with the job process that I’ve had to take a break at the moment. There is nothing out there and it feels like it is one job to 1,000 applications.
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“I’ve lost loads of confidence – I had a Zoom interview the other week and I was terrified, all that independence and confidence I had this time last year has totally gone. In the end I disconnected from the interview and started crying. That’s not me.
“If I’m honest, it is my dog that pulled me through this – if it wasn’t for that dog I don’t know if i would be here. I’ve got no family, no one to rely on, my parents are deceased so that has been really tough.”
Mr Nicholson’s struggles on Universal Credit indicate just how difficult April’s planned removal of the £20 increase will make it for the 5.9 million people who have turned to the benefit during the pandemic.
Today's labour market figures show just how vital it is for the Government to #KeepTheLifeline of the £20 a week increase to #UniversalCredit. Job losses continue to mount and with the furlough scheme set to wind down in the Spring, thousands more workers will face redundancy. pic.twitter.com/7n8Kro8WQW
— Joseph Rowntree Foundation (@jrf_uk) January 26, 2021
Dave Innes, head of economics at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said the increase must remain beyond April after the lifeline was introduced at the start of the pandemic.
Innes said: “Cutting benefits just as unemployment accelerates is bad economics and bad policy. Nor is it acceptable to leave millions of families in the dark about whether their incomes will be cut by £20 a week in April.
“The certainty these families need and deserve is long overdue – now is the time for the Chancellor to do the right thing and keep the Universal Credit uplift, as well as extending this lifeline to those on legacy benefits.”
The number of people reporting redundancy has dropped from its autumn peak, according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, but still hit a record high of 395,000 for the year.
The ONS statistics show that people aged between 25 and 34 are at the biggest risk of losing their job.
Redundancies for people in that age group are up fivefold in the three months leading up to November when compared to the same period last year.
Covid has put events on hold and my career plans on hold with it
Matthew Peter, 25, from Edinburgh, was made redundant in August after his job as an event co-ordinator at the city’s Royal Botanic Gardens was hit by the pandemic.
Mr Peter’s career plans are now on hold alongside the events industry but he told The Big Issue he was grateful to avoid unemployment after the hospitality contractor Sodexo redeployed him from the gardens to a Covid-19 test centre in Edinburgh Airport.
“I went from running events like weddings and conferences to dealing with test kits and swabs,” said Mr Peter. “In a matter of weeks everything just kind of flipped on its head and I had to try and keep my head down and get on with it.
“I was suddenly on the airport tarmac around 20 to 30 people in hi-vis jackets that I’d never met before. So it was a bit bizarre to begin with but I’m trying to turn it around and say at least I’ve been working throughout the whole pandemic and in quite an important role. I’m going to use it to my benefit as much as I can.”
Mr Peter has now spent 10 months working at the Covid test centre after signing a casual contract with Sodexo who “were trying to keep as many people employed as possible”, according to the Scot.
He is hoping the events industry can return so he can get his career back on track.
“My career is massively on hold,” he added. “I did enjoy my job and still loved what I was doing and I was hoping to look for a new job that let me focus on more business events than weddings.
“I’m seeing bits of the industry starting to come back. It’s not like it was a year and a half ago when events jobs were everywhere, but from November onwards I started to see jobs coming back through.
“At the moment I’m applying for jobs as they come up but Covid has put events on hold and my career plans on hold with it.”
The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance is working to directly help people beat unemployment back into work.
Earlier this month The Big Issue launched RORA Jobs and Training, a one-stop shop to help people get back on their feet. Jobs board Adzuna and online training provider FutureLearn joined forces to create The Big Issue’s RORA Toolkit, an action plan to help those dealing with all that unemployment brings.
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