What they don’t tell you about the JobCentre

Yesterday I had three (!) JobCentre meetings.
• One to show my housing details – the one that in my last blog I’d had to ask my housing association to specifically write and post to me a letter for;
• One because I’d entered into the system that I do some self-employed work, and they wanted to find out if I were gainfully self-employed or not (I’m not);
• And one which was the actual first Work Coach Commitment meeting.

I didn’t know that the JobCentre didn’t open until 10am, but it wouldn’t have helped if I had. I can’t queue for a long time because my MiniScoot, which I use to get around when BigScoot is too big for wherever I’m going, doesn’t have a head rest or arm support. So when I arrived seven minutes early, there was a queue of 20-25 people already. By the time the doors opened nearly ten minutes later, there were at least 35 of us, looped back and straggled across the pavement, trying to avoid the alley where someone had relieved themselves earlier.

I have heard of people being sanctioned because, by the time they reached the reception desk, they were late for their appointment. But I don’t think anyone was sanctioned because of the JobCentre not opening its doors in time to process people prior to their appointment. And the security guards join in with the general reception work – which is very important, because the reception desk itself is hidden behind screens, whilst the security guards are the very first thing you see upon entering. Followed by emphatically NOT seeing the reception desk. But it did mean that people were processed quickly, and many knew where they were going.

Like last time, there was a delay whilst the staff assigned to getting my housing details and sick note logged on to the system. And it takes a long time just to type the details into the system, and even longer to find a scanner or photocopier. I’m not good with being sat up; it makes me feel excessively sleepy quite quickly, and also seems to make my body think it’s under attack and needs to mount an immune response. So I’m feeling pretty grotty right now; I’m achey, flu-ey, tired; I can feel that my glands are starting to swell up and become sore, and my throat is sore too. Despite being drowsy, I can’t sleep.

So by the time appointment two came round, I was nearly in tears just from fatigue. I’d taken lots of documents with me – invoices, remittance advice slips, bank statements, copies of permitted work forms, one of the reports I’d written – to show the work that I did. It was simple enough, because the work coach was happy to accept for now that I can’t do more than the hours of work that I said I could do (five/week). It occurs to me as I write this that currently I’m doing only two paid hours a week – will my next work coach appointment involve being expected to find another three? Again, the process of this new staff member logging in, entering the information I’d provided, copying relevant bits all took time. A long time.

She was a lovely lady though and really it was only the sheer time it took, and the fact that I had to do it at all, that was causing a major problem for me.

Once we’d verified that I’m not gainfully self-employed and my sick note says that I can’t work, we moved on to my claimant commitment and my First Commitment Meeting. The work coach ‘switched off’ my work-search requirements, and also there was something about my work-related activity being automatically switched off for two weeks. The work coach didn’t know why; perhaps it is because there hadn’t yet been opportunity to discuss what, if anything, they would be, and I was already on my third meeting of the day.

So for now, my ‘claimant commitment’ is to attend fortnightly work coach meetings (via telephone), log in to my Universal Credit account regularly, and do anything that my work coach tells me to.

That would be that, except that during my meeting, I could overhear whatever anyone else was saying in their meetings. I don’t know if it’s just the floor that I was on, but everyone else seemed to be having problems of some sort. Last week the person(s) of note was two disabled people, one of whom I think had failed a benefit assessment, and they were trying to find out what to do next. This week it was another couple, one of whom had been a victim of abuse and who had no money and no place to stay. The JobCentre couldn’t do anything.

If I’d left before them, I would have waited and asked what I could do. But even though they had a long and increasingly distressed conversation, mine was even longer, and they left well before me. I was gutted not to be able to at least speak to them.

My dog was waiting for me at home, having not yet had a walk, but I let him wait a little longer and detoured to my church. I wanted to sit on the floor, have a little cry, speak to someone familiar who cares about me, and have someone make me a cup of tea. I would have cried just from fatigue I think, even if I weren’t so upset about the other couple.

Being able to drop in at my church like that, to spend time with someone who listened and cared, makes a huge difference to my emotional ability to manage my illness. It’s something I’ve rarely done, because each time I think ‘can I really justify taking up this person’s time?’, but the times when I do go, or do phone someone, I realise just how positive and encouraging it is to me, and how much it helps me to carry on. Maybe this will become a regular thing after jobcentre appointments!

Also, with my fatigue and difficulties being upright, having someone else make that cup of tea makes such a difference compared to making it myself!

Today’s recommendations are for the jobcentre:

  • Open your doors at least half an hour before the first appointment of the day;
  • Upgrade your computer systems so that they function at a reasonable speed;
  • Allow people to arrive more than half an hour early and stay in the waiting area, rather than sending them away;
  • Allow anyone who has come with a claimant to wait for them in the waiting area, rather than sending them away;
  • Any security guards should be discreetly positioned and should not be the first person that a member of public seen upon walking into the jobcentre;
  • If the security guards are having to direct people to where to go, or registering their arrival, or checking that their needs are being met, there’s a problem with the reception desk. The problem may well be that the reception desk is behind screens, such that neither people just walking in nor people in the waiting area can see it; or that the jobcentre deliberately didn’t open its doors in time for reception to process everyone with a 10am appointment;
  • When people do walk into a jobcentre, make it clear where they are to go and what to do. The first thing they see should be a clear reception desk and place to queue, including seats to sit on whilst queuing. Then have the receptionist direct them to wherever they need to go.
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