This year, on Friday 3 April, an unscheduled call appeared on my laptop screen.
‘What could HR want at 4pm?’ I thought. Yes, you might have guessed it – I was being made redundant.
I’d recently embarked on a new career path and loved my new role in comedy publicity – an ambition that had taken nearly a decade to achieve – and I was finally overcoming my sense of imposter syndrome.
But in an instant, coronavirus pulled the rug out from under all our feet, and my comedy dream shattered. But, given that the entire country had gone into lockdown and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe had just been cancelled, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
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With such an uncertain outlook for the arts, I understood my company’s decision to make me redundant rather than furlough me, so I’d be free to find work elsewhere.
There was only one problem… what work? With live gigs cancelled, what was there to publicise? Nothing, it turned out, except my availability to work in a sector that had been brought to its knees.
And just like Fatima, who didn’t know that her next job could be in cyber, I didn’t know I was about to sign up for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).
I’d never ‘signed on’ before. Raised in Merseyside and having worked as a journalist in Liverpool, I am aware of real world struggles and I believe financial support should be available to all – only, up until this year, I naively hadn’t considered ever needing to claim myself.
The ‘work hard and you’ll succeed’ mantra had been drummed into me. However, my teachers never suffixed this advice with ‘until a global pandemic hits’.
I felt humiliated, as if I was admitting defeat, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a failure and a fraud because I was not exactly at rock bottom: I had a modest amount of savings and my husband, fortunately, was able to cover all our household bills.
However, facing an uncertain job market, it made sense to claim for JSA given that I’d paid National Insurance (NI) contributions for years. These were unprecedented times, after all.
Applying through the government website, the form was straightforward – but then I have the luxury of a laptop and home WiFi. An email confirmed receipt of my application and, a few days later, a letter arrived instructing me that I’d ‘get £74.35 a week’. At less than a sixth of the monthly income after tax I was used to, it seemed like a meagre amount.
I immediately cancelled all my unnecessary direct debits: contact lens subscription, car breakdown cover and gym membership. I calculated that I’d have enough coming in to pay my mobile tariff and, given the restrictions and zero social life, belt-tightening wasn’t a problem.
But strictly budgeting from one week to the next, and denying myself online purchases I previously wouldn’t have thought twice about ordering, has been sobering.
Firing off job applications, I dutifully kept a record of each one. I was ready to attend a Jobseeker’s interview at any moment.
Suddenly I was uneasy about sharing my new status with friends and family, worried it would affect their perception of me
Images of ‘Restart Officer’ Pauline, from my favourite sketch show The League Of Gentlemen, flashed through my mind but I received no such invite. The job centres were shut.
The process may have been easy, but I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard to adjust. Practically overnight, I’d gone from working in the ABC1 social class category to the E demographic – unemployed. Or ‘dole scum’ as the egregious character Pauline puts it.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there should be no shame in claiming benefits, but there is a stigma that remains. And while I may not have had to join a physical place at the back of a queue, when income is vastly reduced, your sense of self-worth plummets.
From the day I qualified as a journalist in 2006, I’ve always worked hard to prove my worth, to feel respected by my family and peers. My career was what motivated me to get up every morning. Suddenly I was uneasy about sharing my new status with friends and family, worried it would affect their perception of me.
It’s important to remember that no one who finds themselves in this situation is to blame. Self-doubt can creep in, and it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by worry, but you are not alone.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show a large increase in the unemployment rate and a record number of redundancies, while the employment rate continues to fall.
UK redundancies increased in July to September 2020 by 195,000 compared to last year. As for benefits, the UK Claimant Count level has increased by 112.4% since March 2020, meaning 1.4 million extra people are claiming benefits.
To reference the message of the powerful film I, Daniel Blake, these are people not just statistics – people who are trying to live through this crisis as best they can. The harrowing reality is that some will not survive.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Along with my small amount of savings, I actually became debt free for the first time ever last year. I have a roof over my head and food on the table – that’s what matters.
However, without my husband’s support in covering our outgoings, I’d be seriously struggling. I started to realise how trapped or lost I might feel without the security of my (fortunately very happy) relationship and I feel for those with mounting debts and rent to pay, small business owners and everyone with mouths to feed, who have to go through it alone. It isn’t right that anyone should end up feeling isolated and helpless.
Six months on from redundancy, my JSA came to a mandated end in October. I received a letter explaining that it would be ‘against the law’ for me to claim any more JSA this year.
I was entitled to appeal the decision but, realising that the restrictions are ongoing and that the arts industry is going to be in recovery for a long while ahead, I made the decision to freelance as a journalist rather than apply for more benefits.
In the face of more uncertainty as we live through lockdown 2.0, I’m taking each day as it comes. Even though each job rejection is hard to take, applying is a positive focus and I’m freelancing until I secure a full time role.
Although I’ve had to hit pause on my comedy plans, I do feel my confidence returning by stepping back into my journalistic shoes. I’ve come to understand that my plans are on hold, and while I worry that I may never get back to exactly where I wanted to be, sometimes life takes you on different paths for reasons unknown.
Perhaps I’m meant to juggle both careers for a little while longer – or maybe I’ll stop waiting for a stable job and motherhood will be my next role. I see 2021 as a chance to hit reset. There are always fresh opportunities and I’m keenly aware of how my privilege has allowed me to manage in my current situation.
The future may be uncertain but I’m not giving up on it. I look forward to the live comedy industry bouncing back because, above all, we need laughter now more than ever.
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