'When winter comes, I don’t know how we'll cope': DWP staff struggle to pay for essentials amid cost-of-living crisis

Civil servants describe being "let down, seriously underpaid and undervalued" as they choose between basics and visit foodbanks
Image: hrp_images now/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Tevye Markson

29 Sep 2022

Civil servants at the Department for Work Pensions are having to go without showers, heating, food, and social lives as they cope with soaring inflation, rising energy bills and “paltry” wage increases.

The hardships suffered by officials working in the department amid the cost-of-living crisis are revealed in a 156-page dossier compiled by PCS, which the union will deliver to DWP’s Whitehall headquarters tomorrow afternoon.

The document, seen by CSW, includes testimonies from around 150 PCS members in the department who deliver key public services such as jobs and pensions support and who have received average pay rises of just 2%.

They tell of civil servants cutting down drastically on energy use and commuting costs, sometimes at the expense of their health; having difficulty sleeping; visiting foodbanks; running into overdrafts buying essentials; and turning to parents and payday loans to buy childrens’ clothes and other basics.

The union says the response underlines why it is balloting members nationwide on strike action over pay, pensions, redundancy compensation and jobs.

One work coach quoted in the dossier, a mother-of-three who has worked at DWP for six years, said this is the worst financial situation she has ever been in. 

“With the cost-of-living crisis I have had to choose between heating my home for children or buying myself new work clothes. Mine are about four years old and are in bad condition (thank God for hybrid working),” Eve said. 

“I had to buy school uniforms on my salary and still had to feed my children. I have a car which I am now contemplating giving up so I can keep my fridge fully stocked but will have to walk to and from my children’s school which is about a 20-minute walk then probably a 40-45-minute walk to work with a mobility disability – it’s not ideal. 

“I have thought about foodbanks in the past, but my children are well fed and looked after; my needs come after theirs.”

An earlier survey by PCS found around one in 12 civil servants have visited foodbanks.

Kerry, an administrative officer working on Universal Credit, said she had started visiting foodbanks because after paying her bills and buying some groceries, “I’m left with no money for the rest of the month.”

“I live in overdraft to cover my family’s other needs, which has a knock- on effect. With the price hike in energy I am really scared of using the gas.... I often go without a meal, so my children have food,” she said.

A full-time AO in the department earns between £21,495 and £21,688. For the next grade up, executive officers, pay ranges from £23,700 to £28,117; while at the bottom end of the scale, pay for administrative assistants is set at £21,245. As in other government departments, grades are tied to job roles rather than years served.

Another AO, Jane, said she asked her MP to lower the age she could access her pension “so I can eat and keep warm in winter”.

“I am cutting back everywhere. I eat two meals a day. I have no treats. I have candles on at home, so I don’t switch the lights on. I am desperately doing all I can to survive,” she wrote.

“I am cutting back everywhere. I eat two meals a day. I have no treats. I have candles on at home, so I don’t switch the lights on. I am desperately doing all I can to survive

Tracey, a retirement pensions executive officer, said she is regularly putting food shopping on her credit card, and this year's £30-a-month pay rise has not helped. "I have no idea how I’ll survive Xmas and the winter months. I used to be proud to work for DWP, but I don’t anymore and feel insignificant,” she wrote.

Emma, a work coach, said she may have to turn off her fridge if her energy bills go up further, despite often working overtime.

“To work five days out of seven and not feel able to light my flat or have a hot shower is the unimaginable reality in which I have found myself," she said.

Employees of all ages have spoken out about their struggles.

Esme, a 23-year-old work coach who is pregnant, said: “I honestly don’t know how I am going to survive when my baby is born.

"I undoubtedly will end up in debt. But I have no other choice."

Meanwhile Tracey, a work coach who has been a DWP employee for 40 years, said: “I don’t sleep worrying about the cost of energy, food and wanting to live a full life in the years I have left without this cost-of-living struggle.”

A number of union members who supplied testimonies described having health conditions that make it difficult to cope with the changes they are having to make to cut down on costs.

Mina, a work coach who needs to work from home because she has a suppressed immune system, said she worries about not being able to keep warm after her energy bills have doubled.

“My pay has recently been uplifted to the national living wage and after more than 40 years of service I feel let down, seriously underpaid and undervalued,” she wrote.

Another longtime employee, Zoe – a jobcentre administrative officer also on the minimum wage – said she does not intend to put the heating on despite suffering from a health condition which is exacerbated by the cold. The "sheer worry" of rising food and utility prices is making her feel "very anxious, irritable and stressed, often resulting in sleepless nights", she added.

“My pay has recently been uplifted to the national living wage and after more than 40 years of service I feel let down, seriously underpaid and undervalued"

“I cannot believe that after spending a lifetime working for the department, that I now find myself in this position. It is truly shocking,” she said.

Others spoke of feeling "ashamed" and "anxious" at having to rely on others to help meet their needs – including Paula, a work coach and parent who described having to borrow her bus fare from an elderly neighbour to get to work.

"Life is a chore at the moment, and we take no joy from living and I just worry for the future as when winter comes, I really don’t know how we will cope," she said.

One respondent said they "no longer have any quality of life as we are working to not even be able to afford to pay for food and heating costs, let alone have any social life"; and another said she is lucky if she can afford to eat out with friends once a month and “works to pay bills, nothing more”.

“My attitude now is the heating is going on and they can chase me to the grave for payments of bills," she said.

‘A damning indictment of the cruel effects of austerity’

PCS has written to work and pensions secretary Chloe Smith and DWP permanent secretary Peter Schofield urging them to meet its delegation tomorrow to accept the dossier in person and to reopen negotiations on pay immediately. The union said the department has rejected the invitation.

PCS will ask DWP to study the testimonies closely and agree to reopen pay negotiations.

In an introduction to the document, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the testimonies are a “damning indictment of the cruel effects of years of austerity and pay restraint imposed” on DWP officials.

“As inflation hits a new 40-year high we know many PCS members are struggling on wages that have not kept pace with inflation for decades as prices soar. 

“These testimonies are all from DWP staff. They are heartbreaking stories from government employees who have become the working poor. Struggling to pay for petrol, struggling to pay train fares, struggling to buy food, nappies, medication. Worn down by never being able to afford small treats.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We recognise these are anxious times which is why we’ve brought forward a huge package of support for families through our energy price guarantee and other measures. We are focused on delivering growth and cutting the tax burden to provide quality public services for people who are struggling.

“This year’s pay award was set at the highest level permitted within the civil service guidance, recognising the vital importance of public sector workers while providing value for the taxpayer.”

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