Given the weakness of the trade unions and the increasingly “flexible” (i.e., temporary and insecure) nature of work these days, unemployment has become an almost unavoidable fact of life for the working class. Unemployment is inevitable so long as the economy is organised for the benefit of the rich minority.
The Jobcentre and JSA plays an important role in helping the bosses exploit the working class. It does this by inflicting poverty and harassment on claimants to drive them to accept jobs on any terms, and by providing free labour and subsidies for employers through the New Deal / Workfare schemes. (This also helps drive down wages for people who do have jobs.)
The Jobcentre’s policies are absolutely incapable of solving the unemployment problem. It is simply about managing the unemployed and finding ways of making them profitable for businesses.
Please note this guide is not intended to be a complete or authoritative statement of the law and you should always seek professional guidance if you are in any doubt about your rights or responsibilities.
Introduction to JSA
When claiming Jobseekers Allowance , there is one general rule to remember: minimum compliance, maximum flexibility. Your aim should be to ensure that you keep as much control over your situation as possible while still complying with the minimum conditions for claiming JSA (i.e., that you are ready and willing to work and that you are actively looking for work). To do this, you need to know a few things about the Jobseekers Agreement (JSAg).
The JSAg is a document that you have to sign when you first make your claim for benefit. The important thing to grasp is that it is an agreement and certain details of it are open to negotiation. It sets out exactly what work you are looking for, the hours you’ll consider working, what steps you’ll take to look for work and so on.
It is vital that you make sure these details fit with what YOU want and that you don’t just let them set the conditions and push you into signing it. Remember that if you don’t comply with the JSAg after signing it, they can impose sanctions on you and stop your benefits.
Before looking at the JSAg in detail, there is another important point that few people seem to know about: the conditions you agree to in the JSAg still apply next time you make a claim for JSA and can potentially stop you from getting any money. Say, for example, that you agreed on your JSAg that you were willing to work any hours between 8am and 8pm. You then get a job working 9-5pm, but at some later point, your boss changes your hours to 9-7pm (maybe compulsory over-time). You refuse to work until 7pm and get sacked. When you go to the dole to sign on again, they can sanction you because you said you were willing to work until 8pm. Your claim to benefit is still subject to the conditions set out in your previous JSAg.
So you can see why it is important to make sure the JSAg fits your needs. The key to this is to try and include as many reasonable restrictions on it as possible. This has to be done carefully because if they think you are just piling up obstructions to make yourself unavailable for work, then they will simply block your claim.
Remember, to claim JSA, you have to be ready and able to work and be actively looking for a job. It’s no good saying you’re looking for labouring work, but that you have a bad back and can’t do heavy lifting, because that means you aren’t able to do the work you’re looking for. They’d either tell you to look for a different sort of job or put you on Incapacity benefit instead. Likewise, it’s no good saying you’re looking for some type of job that you obviously are not qualified to do, unless you can realistically gain the necessary qualification by doing a short course (for example, a forklift truck licence).
The point of imposing your own limitations on the terms of the JSAg is not that it limits what can do, but that it limits what the Jobcentre can do. If you say you are only willing to work Mon-Fri, then that doesn’t stop you from applying for jobs which involve working weekends. It just means that the Jobcentre can’t force you to apply for those jobs, and that they can’t sanction you for refusing to apply for a job that involves weekend shifts. It effectively gives you a limited right of refusal that you can use at your own discretion.
On the other hand, telling them that you are willing to work any hours means that you can’t refuse a job on those grounds. You couldn’t, for instance, refuse to apply for a job that involved working night-shift, because you said you would work any hours.
The JSAg In Detail
The negotiable parts of the JSAg are as follows:
What I will do to identify and apply for jobs:
You are required to carry out a minimum of three jobsearch activities a week. However, Jobcentre staff will try and make you do more than this. This actually works out to your advantage though as it means you have a degree of choice over which methods you use.
Write to employers… Agree to this as it’s not difficult. You can count spec letters, emails and application forms towards this. Suggest 1 per week.
Phone employers… Again, agree to this. It does have some draw backs (some people aren’t comfortable with phones), but as it is still an effective way of finding jobs, it’s better to agree to use it. Remember, you could count requests for application forms via phone here. Suggest 1 per week.
Visit employers… It’s best to try and avoid this one as it’s often a costly and time-consuming way of looking for work, when you take into account travelling times and expenses. Only agree to this if you’ve refused to phone employers.
Contact Jobseeker Direct… Again, it’s best to try and avoid this as calls are logged and any job information they give you is recorded, regardless of whether or not it is suitable for you. Although it’s not all that likely, if the Jobcentre was to check up on your jobsearch activity, then your record of calls (or lack of) to Jobseeker Direct might be used against you and could lead to your money being sanctioned. It’s best to avoid committing to any activity where they can easily check up on what you’re doing.
Ask family and friends… Agree to this as they can’t really check on it, but remember that this is a fairly limited way of looking for work and so you don’t want to find yourself having to explain to the dole that this has been your main means of finding a job. It’s a difficult jobsearch activity to prove and they probably won’t just take your word for it.
Check newspapers… Agree to this as it’s a solid form of jobsearch, even though the jobs supplement pages have shrunk massively in recent years and there generally aren’t many vacancies in them any more. Agree to check one local newspaper daily. The Sunderland Echo’s Jobs supplement is every Wednesday and the Evening Chronicle’s is every Thursday.
Other activities… It’s a good idea to suggest doing an internet jobsearch as this gives you by far the largest range of vacancies. Agree to check the Jobcentre Plus website (www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk) once a week. Even if you don’t have an internet connection at home, you can still get free internet access at the library. Alternatively, you can agree to check the job point machines in the Jobcentre once a week. Checking via the internet is generally preferable though as the Jobcentre Plus website has all the same vacancies as the job points (and as Jobseeker’s Direct for that matter) and often the machines in the Jobcentre are broken anyway. Plus, there are many other websites advertising jobs as well.
The types of work I am looking for:
This is straightforward. You have to list 3 types of job you would consider. Remember, these have to be realistic options. It’s no good saying you want to be a lawyer if you haven’t got any qualifications, or that you want to do bricklaying if you’re disabled. However, you can generally get away with including at least one option that you aren’t yet fully qualified for, provided that you can realistically gain that qualification.
I am willing and able to start work:
It’s best to avoid saying “immediately” here. If possible say “within 48 hours” as this gives you time to sign off and sort out things like travel and work clothes. If you say immediately and then refuse a job offer to start that afternoon because you haven’t time to find out how to get there, then you could be sanctioned. Avoid this situation by giving yourself at least 24 and preferably 48 hours notice.
I want to limit the days and hours I am available to work:
It’s best to say no here unless you are caring for someone or are studying part-time. (Remember, part-time is less than 16 hours a week. You can’t claim JSA if you are studying more than that.)
I am available for these days and these hours:
The important thing to bear in mind here is that these hours don’t include travelling times, so you have to take those into account yourself. The start and finish times should only cover the time you actually start work and the time you finish, not the time you leave the house and get back.
Remember that you may be expected to travel up to 90 minutes to get to work. If you say you’re available from 6am thinking that this means you’ll be setting off for work at 6am to get there at 7:30, then you could be in for a nasty shock. A 6am start means that you are agreeing to leave the house and start travelling to work as early as 4:30am!
Of course, you also have to take into consideration the normal working times for the sorts of jobs you are looking for. Factory shifts often do start at 6am so it’s important to strike a balance here between what hours most employers will expect you to work and what time you are willing to get out of bed.
Other agreed restrictions:
This is where you can bring in other issues that affect your ability and availability to work. It’s worth mentioning any health problems you might have here, such as allergies, asthma, epilepsy, etc.
Also, if you have children or any other carer responsibilities, then bring it up. It’s better to not let the Jobcentre think you have any options here. If, for example, you’re a single parent with children in school, it is best to tell the Jobcentre that you have to be available to pick up the children yourself – even if you have parents who could usually do it instead. What happens if your parents are no longer available and you have to collect them yourself?
If you’ve told the Jobcentre you’re available for work until 5:30pm, but now you’re suddenly having to be home by 2:30pm in order to collect the kids, the Jobcentre might not be very sympathetic and you could be sanctioned. It pays to take these sorts of possible situations into account because the JSAg really isn’t very flexible in terms of changing it. Unless you’re on the New Deal stage, you aren’t actually able to alter the JSAg. Finally, if you rely on public transport, you also need to mention that as well.
A Very Brief Note About Sanctions
Sanctions are the Jobcentre’s way of making sure you follow their rules. It basically means having your benefit payments suspended for a set period of time. This is usually for failing to keep to the the terms of the JSAg.
Your advisor might mention that sanctions for failing to comply with the JSAg can last up to 26 weeks but this isn’t strictly accurate. Sanctions work in set stages: 2 weeks for a first offence; 4 weeks for a second offence; 26 weeks for a third offence. If there is a gap of more than 12 months between one offence and the next, then the process is reset, so if you are sanctioned twice in 6 months, then the second of these will cost you 4 weeks money, but if you are sanctioned twice in an18 month period, then the second sanction will still only be for two weeks.
Sanctions only apply to JSA and any Housing or Child benefits you receive won’t be affected. If you have been sanctioned, you could be elegible for Hardship Allowance.
Sanctions are imposed at your jobsearch advisor’s discretion (this is one good reason why you should never swear at or threaten your advisor) but you can, in theory, appeal against their decision. The first appeal is dealt with by the centre manager, and in most situations they are likely to back up their staff and rule against your appeal. You can then appeal to an independent tribunal, but this can be a bureaucratic nightmare.
While there is a good chance the independent tribunal will rule in your favour, the difficulty is in pushing your case long enough to get a decision. The process can often take up to 6 months and all through that, you’ll have to get by on little to no income. If you win however, your payments will be backdated.