‘On the brink of losing everything’ - new job starters vent frustration at furlough rules

Tamara Ellison, Daniel Heath and Emily Cuthbert have all joined the #newstarterfurlough movement aft

Tamara Ellison, Daniel Heath and Emily Cuthbert have all joined the #newstarterfurlough movement after discovering they were not entitled to payments under the government's coronavirus job retention scheme. Picture: TAMARA ELLISION/DANIEL HEATH/EMILY CUTHBERT - Credit: TAMARA ELLISION/DANIEL HEATH/EMILY CUTHBERT

It was her dream job and ticket to a brighter future - but now Tamara Ellison says she faces losing everything, because she was unfortunate enough to change jobs at just the wrong time.

Like thousands of people across the country, the 48-year-old’s life and career was plunged into uncertainty when the coronavirus crisis forced many companies to close, or left them with drastically reduced workloads.

The timing could not have been worse, with the mum-of-two from Eriswell - who relocated to Suffolk from London three years ago - starting her ideal job as a studio manager for Newmarket-based design agency Cubiq on March 2.

Despite the crisis, her future looked secure when Cubiq director John Treby signed up to chancellor Rishi Sunak’s coronavirus job retention scheme - which allows firms to temporarily lay off workers while the government pays 80% of their salary.

In response to mounting criticism over the original cut off date of February 28, the government changed the rules to include new starters who joined the payroll on or before March 19 - the day before the scheme started.

HM Treasury said the change would benefit more than 200,000 workers, with paymaster general Penny Mordaunt adding: “This will help more people and is very welcome. Sorry it was not done sooner.”

However Mrs Ellison - who left her previous job in January - and Mr Treby say she will still be ineligible, because a payroll submission for her new role had not been made by that date.

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A HM Treasury spokesman said: “Our change to the coronavirus job retention scheme cut-off date follows consultation with businesses and is expected to benefit over 200,000 employees.

“We’ve been flexible in our approach to ensure the scheme is as generous as possible whilst keeping the fraud risks under control.”

It is a cruel stroke of luck that has taken Mrs Ellison, the sole breadwinner in her household, from a comfortable life with a bright new future ahead of her to all of a sudden having no income.

She has also been told that she is not entitled to Universal Credit, meaning she faces a desperate period where she is even unsure if she can put food on the table for her 13-year-old son.

“I am on the brink of losing everything,” said Mrs Ellison, who has joined the #newstarterfurlough campaign online to lobby the government to change what she has described as “unfair” rules.

Although she stressed that her new employer is in no way to blame for her predicament, she said: “I can’t even afford the paper for my son to do his schoolwork, let alone the broadband.

“I know it sounds dramatic, but I really don’t know how much longer I can afford milk to put on his cereal.”

The government wants to stop businesses fraudulently signing up to the job retention scheme by hiring “ghost” employees, hence the reason for a cut-off date.

The March 19 date has been chosen because that is the date before the scheme was announced.

There are fears going beyond that date could allow people to exploit the scheme with fraudulent payroll data HM Revenue and Customs could not verify.

But Mrs Ellison believes her employment records should be more than enough proof she is not trying to game the furlough system.

“I’ve been a taxpayer for 30 years, but that counts for nothing - because I made the mistake of changing jobs and I don’t qualify,” she said.

“We’ve got all the records to support the fact that we’re not frauds and that this is legitimate employment.

“Figures show that 250,000 people a month change jobs. However those figures don’t just effect the people who’ve changed jobs - we’ve got families, so you can multiple the number of people who are affected.”

‘Punished for progressing my career’

Daniel Heath was delighted to earn a promotion when he moved from Abbeycroft Leisure, in Haverhill, to become a manager at Nuclear High Ropes.

Yet days after he started work on Friday, March 13, prime minister Boris Johnson urged people to stop all non-essential contact - and, a week later, announced a UK-wide lockdown.

As he was not due to be paid until April 6, he says he remains ineligible for furlough payments under the government scheme.

“The company have kept me on and I want to stay employed by them,” said Mr Heath, who lives in Haverhill.

“However they cannot pay me, because I’m not eligible.

“Now I am in a situation where I have no job and no income.”

As such as the 29-year-old and his partner are having to manage on her income.

“It’s really affected me because with all the bills I have to pay, it’s going to be a real struggle to do it on one wage and income.

“I’m stressed about bills and what’s going to happen. You have to go out of the house and expose yourself more than you would to try and find an income.

“I feel like I’m being punished for progressing my career. New starters are going to boost the economy - it makes you quite angry to think that they’re leaving you behind.”

‘We were due to exchange contracts on our new house...All that had to be stopped’

Emily Cuthbert was not only starting a new job, but a new life with her partner as they prepared to exchange contracts on their first ever home.

But the 26-year-old’s dreams were shattered because she also was unlucky to switch jobs at the wrong time.

The financial planner had been offered her new job in February but was unable to take it up until March 2, because she had to work a four-week notice period.

When the coronavirus crisis hit, her new employer had no alternative but to make her redundant because of the rules around furloughing and new starters.

“It was really hard hearing the news,” Miss Cuthbert said.

“We were due to exchange contracts for our first house. We were really excited but, in a matter of days, all that had to be stopped.

“We’ve lost 60% of our household income. Because my partner earns, I am not entitled to Universal Credit.

“It is really upsetting. Even when studying through college, I’ve always worked and paid my taxes.

“There’s no help available to me whatsoever, yet there are people who haven’t worked who are able to get help.

“I just want to work, pay my taxes and be helped when I need to be helped.

“I feel we should be given an opportunity to prove that our jobs are legitimate and that we’re not frauds.”