Part-timers have reacted with dismay to the tightening of rules that could see their benefits cut unless they work longer hours or take steps to increase their income.
The changes, which come into force in January, will require claimants working up to 15 hours a week (24 hours a week for couples) to take action to increase their earnings. The current threshold is nine hours, but this goes up to 12 hours a week on Monday, and 19 hours a week for couples.
In his growth plan aimed at kick-starting the economy which he unveiled on Friday, the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, said the change would affect 120,000 people on universal credit who were in low-income work. “They will be expected to actively look for work and attend weekly or fortnightly work centers to secure more or better paid work, or they may have their benefits reduced,” he said.
Jess Philips, Labor MP for Birmingham Yardley, tweeted that the changes would harm women the most. “Women! They are the ones this hurts. Women are more likely to work part-time. If the Chancellor had to pay the billions of pounds of free work women do, he would be borrowing even more dangerous sums,” she wrote.
A number of part-timers, some aged over 50, contacted the Guardian to say they would struggle to increase their hours due to health issues, childcare or other constraints.
Sarah Card, 49, a single parent who works as a behavior support assistant at a secondary school in Bradford, said: “When I work in a school I can’t just increase my hours. I have asked about extra hours, but a full-time position would mean that I would start before 8am and I simply can’t do it due to travel and childcare not being available, so what do the authorities expect me to do? I always want to check things out [jobs]but in general it is not possible.”
She added: “I have three young children, the youngest is still at primary school, so the part-time classes fitted in perfectly with the school run. Now I’m being told I have to make another 50% on top from this month and even more from January.”
Card has been working 10 hours a week as a lunch assistant after being made redundant from her job as a teaching assistant at her daughter’s primary school. After she lost that job, she had to attend weekly appointments at an out-of-town job center, which involve two bus rides and take about an hour.
“That’s a whole morning for a five-minute appointment. I don’t drive, so I rely on public transport which has not only increased in price, but the services I use have been reduced, so I’m limited in where I can travel to.”
During the school holidays, she sometimes takes her children aged nine, 11 and 12 to the job centre. She also has three grown children. Card hopes that in the future some of these meetings with a job coach can be done over the phone.
The card starts work at 11.45 and ends at 2pm, which gives her an hour and a half before she has to pick up her daughter from primary school. “When my kids are the age they are – we do homework, baths, dinner and go to bed – how am I going to fit in the 20 hours of job hunting every week?”
She added: “I have a job that fits into my life and I don’t ask to have things brought to me.” Card plans to apply for a full-time job when the youngest child starts secondary school in two years.
On top of her gross monthly salary of £350, Card receives £1,410 a month in Universal Credit. Her rent is £575 and her energy bill is about £300 a month. Her former partner paid her a similar amount in maintenance every month, but that has stopped because he had an accident and is on statutory sick pay. Adding to her worries, her landlord is selling her, so she must find a new home, which proves to be no easy task.
A 62-year-old chef, who is looking for part-time work and has some health problems, said: “You can’t force people to work longer hours when they can’t physically do it. Plus it doesn’t promote more productivity, in fact quite the opposite – ask any business owner.”