Wigan’s Jobcentre staff have spoken of their pride in their work and urged people to be honest and open with them as the benefits system comes under fire.
The team in the Jobcentre Plus at Brocol House in the town centre, which is one of three facilities for those seeking work in the borough, said there is a great deal of good work going on in the borough and employees enjoy a good relationship with their customers.
That comes as a regional JPI Media investigation has found a litany of problems with the controversial Universal Credit, with claims that people are being pushed into council tax arrears and debt and struggling to get the help they need on the phone lines.
Wigan politicians, including the town’s MP Lisa Nandy and the council’s housing and welfare boss Coun Terry Halliwell, have not held back in their criticism of the system.
Jobcentre Plus staff, though, say they have received no indication that Wigan customers are experiencing chronic problems and pointed out the numerous options available to those struggling.
However, they said staff can only intervene if they are aware of the full facts about an individual or family’s circumstances.
The JPI Media investigation found two million calls to the Universal Credit helpline have gone unanswered.
However, Jobcentre Plus staff strongly hit back at claims Wiganers were experiencing chronic difficulties with the phone system, although they also encouraged residents to consider other means of sorting out any issues they have.
Senior operations lead Amy said: “We’ve had no feedback from our customers in Wigan suggesting they are not having their calls answered and we do work with the service team covering Wigan.
“We also encourage people to maintain their account digitally. All aspects of their account, whether it’s a change of circumstances or uploading documents and evidence, can be done online at any time of the day.
“For those without the digital capacity we support them on the computers here or signpost them to further help.
“We encourage people to do things digitally rather than going through to a call centre.”
Claimants have also recently spokenof problems filling in the forms to get Universal Credit and experiencing a wait of five weeks for completed applications to be processed.
Jobcentre Plus staff reassured Wiganers help is available and urged people to trust their work coaches and the other employees even with sensitive personal information.
Partnership manager Nicky said: “When we are having conversations with customers we ask them about their financial situation and budgeting.
“There are advances they can ask for which can be up to 100 per cent of their first payment. This is repayable over a period of up to 12 months.
“We appreciate these can be difficult conversations, so if a customer doesn’t want to talk to the work coach they can go and do it online. We also find they share more with Citizens’ Advice.
“We can only tailor support if we know what is going on outside the job claim, if someone has got drug and alcohol problems, or is fleeing domestic abuse.”
Customer service lead Kathryn added: “We also make preview calls to customers which explains what evidence customers need to bring with them so it’s a once-and-done visit.
“Sometimes people don’t tell us everything so it’s about building that rapport. People think they can’t tell us things but we need to know to be able to help them.
“If anybody is having any issues our message is to please come in and speak to your work coach. That is what we are here for. Don’t wait until it gets to a point where it is critical, let us know from the beginning. We are doing really well here in Wigan. We’ve got so many people moving into work and we are really proud of what we do here. We’re Wiganers helping Wiganers.”
That comes through clearly speaking to work coaches Lee-Anne, from Swinley, and Steve from Shevington, who are a far cry from the rather forbidding image of Jobcentre staff which has sometimes been portrayed in criticism of the system.
Lee-Anne said: “I love my job, I really enjoy what I do. When people come in, meet us and spend time with us they see the support available and see we’re human.I see it all the time, people walk out of the Jobcentre surprised because it wasn’t the experience they thought it was going to be.
“We also spend a lot of time meeting providers, seeing what the roles are all about. We experience the environment the customers will be in and what they will be expected to do.I recently went to Mantra, the logistics firm in St Helens, and it was a real eye-opener. I even got to drive a fork-lift truck.”
The team says it is enthusiastic about spreading the message about what people or businesses can expect when they come to the Jobcentre and become involved in the process of getting people back to work.
Nicky said: “We recently had 10 care employers in and none of them understood about employees being better off in work. They came with all these negative stories they had heard.
“They thought you couldn’t work over 16 hours a week, which isn’t the case with Universal Credit, although it is with some other benefits.
“We explained the allowances available and the work taper and they can take that back to their employees and have conversations about increasing their hours and building up a more flexible workforce.”
The Jobcentre was also keen to explain recent developments available to Wiganers such as the DWP-funded Help To Claim, which is run through Citizens’ Advice and helps residents, especially vulnerable people, through their journey of claiming Universal Credit.
The organisation also has a team heading out into schools and the community to help young people, recently doing successful work with care leavers in the borough using sport as a way of teaching them the skills needed to thrive in the workplace.
Getting disabled Wiganers into jobs is also a key focus, with employers being encouraged to value their contributions through Disability Confident and disability employment advisor Andy Hunter working to help them through the process.
The Jobcentre Plus is also hoping to become a more autism-friendly environment thanks to work with a local organisation.