‘What do they expect me to do?’ Part-time workers dismayed by benefits rule changes

Part-time workers have reacted with dismay at the tightening of rules that could result in a cut to their benefits unless they work longer hours or take steps to increase their earnings.

The changes, which that come into force in January, will require claimants who work up to 15 hours a week (24 hours a week for couples) to take action to boost 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 kickstarting the economy that he unveiled on Friday, the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, said the change would affect 120,000 people on universal credit who were in work on low earnings. “They will be expected to actively search for work and attend weekly or fortnightly appointments at a job centre in order to secure more or better paid work, or they could have their benefits reduced,” he said.

Jess Philips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, tweeted that the changes would hurt women most. “Women! That’s who this hurts. Women are more likely to work part-time. If chancellor had to pay the billions of pounds of free labour women do he would be borrowing even more dangerous amounts,” she wrote.

A number of part-time workers, some over the age of 50, contacted the Guardian to say they would struggle to increase their hours because of health problems, childcare or other constraints.

Sarah Card, 49, a single parent who works as a behaviour support assistant at a secondary school in Bradford, said: “As 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 starting before 8am and I simply can’t do that due to travel and childcare options not being available so what does the government expect me to do? I will always check things out [jobs], but generally it’s not feasible.”

She added: “I have three young children, the youngest still being at primary school, so the part-time hours fit in perfectly with the school run. Now I’m being told I need to earn another 50% on top from this month and even more from January.”

Card has been working 10 hours a week as a lunchtime 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 a job centre out of town, which involves two bus rides and takes about an hour.

“That’s a whole morning for a five-minute appointment. I do not drive so I’m reliant on public transport which not only has increased in price but the services I use have been cut back so I’m restricted with where I can travel to.”

During the school holidays, she sometimes takes her children, aged nine, 11 and 12, to the job centre with her. She also has three grownup children. Card hopes that in future, some of those meetings with a job coach can be done by phone.

Card starts work at 11.45am and finishes at 2pm, giving her an hour and a half before she has to pick up her daughter from primary school. “With my children being the ages they are – we do homework, baths, dinner, then bed – how am I supposed to fit in the 20 hours of job searching each week?”

She added: “I’ve got a job that fits in with my life, and I’m not asking for things to be handed to me.” Card plans to apply for a full-time job once her youngest child starts secondary school in two years’ time.

On top of her £350 gross monthly salary, Card receives £1,410 a month in universal credit. Her rent is £575 and her energy bills are about £300 a month. Her former partner was paying her a similar sum 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 so she has to find a new home, which is not proving easy.

A 62-year-old chef, who is looking for part-time work and has some health problems, said: “You cannot force people to work longer hours when they cannot physically do so. Plus it does not promote more productivity, in fact quite the opposite – ask any business owner.”