For many of us, the most inconvenient fact of life during the coronavirus outbreak so far has been having to spend more time than usual at home or with our loved ones and flatmates. But for others, life has quickly become unrecognisable in a matter of days – including their jobs.
“I lost everything in one afternoon,” says Nicole, who works in a boutique fitness studio in London. “My job, my income, my routine and my security – as well as a colleague who is a good friend that had to leave the country immediately and go home out of fear for her livelihood.”
On Friday night, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced loans designed to help businesses retain staff due to the closure of bars, gyms, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and cafes. This followed a week of speculation after Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the public to avoid these spaces.
The measures announced might offer short-term security for some business owners, but they came far too late for the many employees who have been fired by those who have already shut up shop.
Reality has hit quickly for many of the 896,000 or so people in the UK on zero-hour contracts, where the relationship between a staff member and employer is considered “casual” in legal terms. There is no obligation for the employer to offer work, annual leave, sick pay or any other benefits, and this usually means that the contract can be terminated on short notice with no repercussions.
“In certain industries, such as hospitality, leisure and the arts, zero-hours contracts have become the norm,” explains insolvency practitioner Gareth Buckley. This, he says, has “allowed business owners to expand rapidly as they don’t have to worry about paying employees should sales reduce.”
In an “unprecedented context”, he says, “where businesses are losing 95 percent of their demand in just four weeks,” companies are able to act to protect themselves with no legal or financial ramifications.
“On Monday afternoon all of the front of house staff, the cleaners and the trainers got an email telling us that effective immediately the studio would be closing,” says Nicole. “There was no offer of financial support and – of course – we’re not even entitled to statutory sick pay. It was terrifying.”
The messaging from management was different tor others like Lily, an actress who was – up until this week – performing in a West End musical. “We were told that we would get a week of pay, but beyond that everything is uncertain,” she tells me. “My next job, which is due to start in May has been cancelled, so either way, when my current show ends, I’ll be unemployed.”
She blames the government’s unclear messaging for this, as well as the normalisation of an informal industry environment where many of the staff are considered self-employed. “After this week, it’s down to the theatre’s discretion if they pay us or not, basically – I’ve got friends who haven’t even been paid this week.”
The news came quickly over the phone for Lisa who worked as a barista alongside her university studies in Bath. “I’m not entitled to any sick pay as it was all informal, so now I am panicking about how to pay my rent,” she says. “All of the managers, who were contracted employees, were safe – as the company had an obligation to pay them, but that was sadly not the case for so many of us shift workers.”
“I felt like we were a family – a tight-knit group – but I guess when it comes down to it, we’re all left to fend for ourselves.”
Gareth’s advice for those who suddenly find themselves unemployed is to write down all expenditure on paper and work out where you can make savings. “If that means cancelling Sky Sports or any monthly subscriptions, it pays to know exactly what’s coming in and out of your bank account – and when,” he says. “Follow the usual steps for a newly unemployed person: reduce your expenditure and sign up for Universal Credit (UC) – and if necessary, apply for an advance on your payout.”
He recommends keeping an eye on the news: “Things are changing all the time, and measures are being announced that could potentially reduce the outgoings of people in this position, so pay attention and apply for anything you’re entitled to.”
Nicole expected more from her employer, for whom she’s worked for two years. “It’s really depressing,” she continues. “For all the loyalty we have shown to the company, to be discarded by email was really upsetting.”
Worse still, she’s been watching the company post on social media since about the importance of “community”. “It just made me feel completely and utterly unimportant and disposable,” she tells me. “The owners left us to clean up at the end of the day and told us to leave our keys – which says a lot.”
The pandemic is testing our economy in unprecedented ways. Many businesses who have cut corners en route to growth – along with their staff – are starting to understand the dangers of such recklessness. “We’ve never had this many phone calls ever,” says Gareth, who’s been in the industry for 20 years. “Unusually, we’re hearing from people from every demographic and across all industries, with no group in particular being hit worse than any other.”
Nicole has signed on to Universal Credit, but the future feels uncertain. “I just hope businesses learn from this and to think more carefully about expansion plans,” she tells me. “At my work they’ve been going on and on about opening a new studio for months, which suggests they have money they could support us with. At the end of the day, if you can afford to open new studios only because you aren’t paying staff basic things like sick pay, then maybe you shouldn’t be expanding in the first place.”
Gareth agrees: “It will certainly change the way people think when entering into new jobs. Hopefully one positive that can come out of all this is more security for workers.”