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Important information for workers during COVID-19

Hundreds of billions of pounds has been made available to help business owners, workers and the self-employed to cope with the fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

Here Times Money picks through what is available and how you can claim should you lose your job, find your role put on hold, fall sick or have to self-isolate.

WORKERS

Fears had grown that millions of full-time workers could be laid off at businesses forced to shut down because of the crisis.

So to avoid mass redundancies and help businesses keep staff on their books, the government took an unprecedented step last week and promised to pay 80 per cent of the wages of private sector employees who are unable to work due to the pandemic, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month, for three months.

The technicalities of the scheme have not been worked through yet, but it seems likely that most employees will be told to stop work and effectively take a 20 per cent pay cut. In theory, some employers could pay the extra 20 per cent to workers so that they remain on full wage. In practice, given the huge financial constraints companies are under, this seems unlikely.

The scheme will work by the government paying grants to the companies affected, who will then pass on the wages to workers.

Payments will be backdated to March 1, which will mean companies can put workers back on the payroll if they have already taken steps to lay them off.

It is unlikely, however, to be able to pay out until the end of April and the Treasury is in the process of setting up a website where firms can apply. All the preliminary information on the scheme is here.

Companies with up to 250 staff will also be able to claim back the cost of paying workers’ statutory sick pay for up to two weeks of absence caused by coronavirus or self-isolation. The government is yet to clarify how companies can apply for this.

If you cannot work because of coronavirus, you’re unlikely to be able to get tested at this stage and GPs will not want to see you. However, you can now access a digital sick note without going to the doctor, which will be provided as evidence that a person has to self-isolate. People are being told to self-isolate either if they have symptoms themselves or live with someone who has them. The notes can be accessed here.

LOSING YOUR JOB

If you’ve been made redundant from your company and they tell you it is because of the fact that it cannot afford to keep employing you because of damage to its business caused by the coronavirus pandemic, you have a number of rights and expectations about how much money you’ll receive.

You’ll be entitled to a statutory payout if you’re an employee and you’ve been working at your current employer for two years or more. According to the law, this payout will be half a week’s pay for each year you were under the age of 22, one week’s pay for each year you worked if you’re aged between 22 and 40, and one and a half week’s pay for each year you were 41 or older. Your weekly redundancy payout will be capped at £525 and the maximum statutory payout is £15,750. However, it is reasonably likely that your company will present you with a package that exceeds this; the vast majority have their own bespoke redundancy policies.

If you feel that coronavirus is not a truthful reason for laying you off and that you are actually being punished for taking time off or for something else, you could make a claim to an employment tribunal. However, you will have to make a claim within three months of your employment ending. If you’re on a zero-hours contract you can’t claim for unfair dismissal.

If you don’t feel your redundancy payout can sustain you — and if your employer hasn’t restored you to the payroll after last Friday’s government wage payment (see above), you could be eligible for benefits. universal credit is available for those who are unemployed, aged at least 18, and have less than £16,000 in savings. Universal credit is a new government welfare scheme which combines lots of benefits into a single monthly payment. The government has a comprehensive guide, including a benefits calculator here which will tell you everything you need to know. 

SELF-EMPLOYED WORKERS

At present self-employed workers such as musicians, taxi drivers and supply teachers aren’t going to benefit from rules paying employees 80 per cent of their wages.

The Treasury said it is considering greater provisions to help the UK’s five million self-employed workers, but for now, there are ways to access help.

Sick or self-isolating self-employed workers can access universal credit at the same rate as employees would claim statutory sick pay, £94.25 per week. Previously this was available from day four, but is now being made available from day one. The first step to claiming this is to get an isolation note from the NHS, which you can do here.

Then, self-employed workers have to apply for new-style Employment Support Allowance by calling the universal redit helpline on 0800 328 5644, which is open between 8am and 6pm. They will ask you to fill out a claim form, which can be done by post or email, and looks like this.

It’s also much easier to claim universal credit because a cap to payments known as the minimum income floor — which effectively curtailed the benefits given to the low-earning self-employed — has been temporarily suspended. The amount you get depends on your circumstances, but the first step is to create a universal credit account and give some details about your income, savings and outgoings, which you can do here.

The July 2020 self-assessment tax payment deadline, which is paid by some self-assessment taxpayers who make advance payments on their bill, has been pushed back to January 2021. This means that those expected to pay some of their bill in July, will now be expected to do so in January. There will be no late payment penalties until this time and workers don’t need to do anything.

Lastly, any VAT bills from now until the end of June will be deferred until the end of the tax year, in April 2021. If you’ve missed an outstanding tax payment or think you might miss your next payment, HMRC urges people to contact its dedicated Covid-19 helpline on 0800 0159 559.

YOUR HOME

If you own your own home and find yourself unable to pay the mortgage, you can apply for a payment holiday from your bank for three months. These holidays will be made available to any homeowner concerned about their ability to meet repayments due to a loss of work or other circumstances.

You won’t have to go through any kind of means-test, and you won’t need to provide evidence you’ve been affected by the coronavirus crisis — in effect, you’ll be able to self-certify.

However, whether or not you apply for such a holiday must still be a careful decision, because it will cost you extra in the long-term. You’ll still owe the bank the same capital amount as you do now but interest will continue to accrue while you stop payments.

This means that, ultimately, it will take you longer and cost you a little more to clear your mortgage. On a £500,000 mortgage over 25 years, at a rate of 3 per cent, that would add almost £3,000 to your overall debt. The longer you are through your mortgage term, and the lower interest rate you have, the less it will be.

Lenders will not charge you any additional set-up fees to authorise a payment holiday.

After three months, your lender will contact you to assess your circumstances and agree on a manageable way for you to make up the deferred payments. Lenders will provide a range of options, which may include extending your mortgage term or altering your monthly payments if it’s affordable to do so.

You’ll need to contact your bank or building society directly to arrange a holiday, but there have been some teething problems. With phone lines flooded, many lenders have offered an online form where you can apply. Barclays and HSBC have yet to offer these. Barclays has yet to extend its mortgage repayment facility to landlords, although it stresses it is “working on an appropriate solution”. The key thing is to have patience.

YOUR RENTAL HOME

Under emergency rules, private landlords are banned from beginning eviction proceedings for the next three months, giving private renters some breathing space.

The same applies to housing associations, which have promised not to evict tenants who are ill and fall behind on rent payments.

Even if your landlord has already applied to give you notice, they won’t be able to take you to court to begin eviction proceedings for the next three months.

Communication is key. Speak to your landlord to explain you might struggle to pay your rent.

Landlords can apply for a mortgage holiday if they hold a buy-to-let mortgage, in the same arrangement as homeowners (see above). The government has urged tenants and landlords to work together, for example to agree a rent holiday or repayment plan once the financial climate has improved. If possible, get any agreements in writing.

If you want to leave rented accommodation as soon as possible (for example because you want to reduce your outgoings and move in with someone else) and have signed a fixed-term contract, it will only be possible to leave early by negotiating this with your landlord.

Check your rental agreement, as 12-month assured shorthold tenancies usually include a six-month break clause, for either landlord or tenant to exit the agreement, so it may be possible to leave earlier than you might think.

The government has promised to pay 30 per cent of average rents in your area. To do this, renters must apply for the Local Housing Allowance, a type of housing benefit for private renters, which is administered by local authorities. Contact your local authority for details on how to claim.

The Valuation Office has an online form for working out Local Housing Allowance rates here. If you’re renting a property that costs above average for the area, be aware that the benefit might cover less than 30 per cent of your actual rent.

YOUR OTHER FINANCES

If you’re struggling to repay credit card or personal loan debts, the first step is to contact the company you have the debt with, since many are offering payment holidays or waiving late payment charges for those financially affected by coronavirus.

This isn’t an automatic right, but will be up to the bank or financial firm to look at your circumstances and decide whether it should step in to help.

Barclays, for example, has promised mortgage holidays but says personal loan holidays are to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Santander says it will consider extending people’s borrowing if they contact the bank. Before you contact your provider, gather plenty of information to explain why your income has been hit by Covid-19, such as if you have been unable to work. Be aware that many lenders are busy with requests from other customers, so it may take longer to get through to email and online forms, so calling is probably the best way to get advice quickly.

If you have money locked away in a fixed-rate bond, some savings providers have relaxed the normally tough rules on accessing money early. This means you may not have to pay a penalty to get the money out.

Again, contact the firm you hold an account with and explain your situation, because technically they can still stick to the terms and conditions of the account, which might impose withdrawal penalties or ban any access to cash before the fixed term ends.

WHAT TO CLAIM IF YOU’RE WORKING FROM HOME

Millions of people are working from home for the first time. If you have to work from home regularly your company can pay you a modest tax-free homeworking allowance, which should be added directly to your wages.

This is designed to cover costs such as higher gas and electricity bills and is due to increase from £4 a week to £6 on April 6. It should compensate for any extra spending on energy as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

If you can prove that you have spent more than this, claim back the outlay on expenses. Your company would usually facilitate your home-working by providing tools you don’t have such as laptops, but it doesn’t by law have to give you anything.

If you’re a full-time employee and you need to buy things that could help you set up your home office, you could get back some of your money as employment expenses via a P87 form. You can use a P87 if you’re not filling in a self-assessment form, if you are an employee and you have spent your own money on expenses that have not been reimbursed, and if your allowable employment expenses are less than £2,500 for the tax year (any more and you will have to fill in a full return).

HMRC guidance says that anyone can claim tax relief via this form for expenses that are incurred “wholly, exclusively and necessarily” in the performance of their role. This is where it can get tricky, as proving you only use laptops, cars or internet broadband connections solely for work purposes would be extremely difficult. Items such as a desk chair should be acceptable, along with other office furniture and stationery, provided you can convince HMRC they were necessary for you to do your job properly and not bought for your own convenience or for other personal reasons.

The amount of tax relief you receive will depend on your income-tax rate. For example, if you are a basic-rate taxpayer claiming relief on £1,000 of allowable expenses, you will receive £200 — that is, 20 per cent of £1,000.

The rules on timing for P87 forms are nowhere near as rigid as tax returns. You have four years from the end of the tax year to make a claim: so, for 2019-20, you must make a claim by April 5, 2024. You can find the form here.

If your claim is successful, HMRC will pay what it owes you by cheque or it will adjust your tax code and pay you via your wages. You will not have to submit any receipts with the P87, but keep them anyway, as HMRC may want to check them.

HERE IS THE LINK TO THE FULL ARTICLE: The Times Money Mentor

To note:

The support from the government doesn’t really cover those employed on a zero-hours contract that are unable to get work because their usual employer has closed (not because they have, or think they might have the virus). In this situation I think it is for people to apply for Universal Credit. However, remind them of the following:

  • They should claim the day after they receive their last pay from their previous employment (otherwise their pay will be included in their Universal Credit calculation and they will receive less)
  • If they are claiming old-style Child Tax Credits or Working Tax Credits, these will immediately stop as the claim for Universal Credit is being processed. This will no doubt place the person in a precarious financial position therefore they need to weigh up whether they can feasibly do it or not. Applying for Universal Credit may also mean that they are entitled to less overall going forward.
  • To my knowledge there is still a 5-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment.

The second and third bullet points can be alleviated by applying for a Universal Credit Advance although this does need to be paid back within 12 months.

www.turn2us.org.uk is a really good website for benefits advice and there is a special Coronavirus section.

I hope you can find some help in this article

Emma x

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