What to do if you’re a freelancer or on a zero-hours contract right now

Your guide to everything from deferred income tax payments to starting your own OnlyFans.

by Moya Lothian-McLean
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24 March 2020, 12:00pm

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” said Vladimir Lenin. Or, put more succinctly by the greatest philosopher to grace Twitter, @horse_ebooks: “Everything happens so much”.

Coronavirus has rendered everything we know moot. And while not getting sick or infecting loved ones is a primary concern for the majority, the question coming a close second is: how on earth are we going to keep up with the financial demands placed upon us by capitalism, when the entire economy (bar healthcare and supermarkets) seems to have shuddered to a halt?

Since 12 March, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has essentially delivered three successive budgets, each promising increased measures to help bailout businesses and workers during the coronavirus crisis. The most recent, announced on 20 March, was led by a pledge that the government would now cover 80% of salary costs for any staff (under a cap of £2,500 a month) kept on by their employer during the crisis. In addition, Sunak announced a deferral of VAT payments until the end of June. Ditto, self-assessment income tax payments for July 2020 can be deferred for another six months, although there’s a fear this merely will put more pressure on people during key earning months.

But bar the tax nod, there was little acknowledgement of the plight of nearly five-million self-employed people in the UK in Rishi Sunak’s new roll-out. Ditto the estimated 2.7% of the UK workforce who count a zero-hours contract as their main source of income. Calls have been made for safeguards to come in, pronto, and by the time you read this, everything could have changed -- such is the speed of movement on this issue. But if not, here’s a few pointers to hopefully help those who are falling between the safety nets feel less panicked.

C is for… COLLECTIVE ORGANISING

It’s called a union, sweetie! In recent years, the power of the union has made something of a comeback, thanks to high profile victories for workers going up against Goliaths of institutions. As recently as January, 200 workers at St Mary’s hospital, London, won the right to in-house contracts, NHS pay rates and sick leave among other benefits after an extended campaign of industrial action. Backed by their union, cleaners also walked out of another south London hospital on 14 March, after failing to be paid in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

Essentially: collective action is powerful and joining a union gives workers access to advice, legal support and the potential to mobilise an entire organisation, if needed. But often, a letter from the union can quickly rectify a situation where a worker is being treated unfairly, without need for further recourse to action.

For workers on zero-hours contracts, going to a union for help during this period could prove massively helpful. Self-employed people may find it less pertinent for their situation but even signing up to a renters union can assist in alleviating pressure in one area, even if it’s not directly related to employment. As for narrowing down which organisation is best suited to a worker’s needs, Trades Union Congress’ Union Finder tool comes in very handy.

Owing money

For those with existing debt they’re struggling to pay, borrowing more might seem like the answer right now. Loan sharks agree: they’ve been reported to be circling vulnerable customers with sharp teeth bared over the last week. But experts are firm: this is not a good idea. With no money coming in, it could instead leave those with fluctuating incomes (e.g. freelancers, people on zero-hour contracts) with even bigger debts to pay off once the peak of the crisis has passed. Instead, many financial institutions are offering repayment ‘holidays’ on personal loans, or are accepting reduced payments. Consumer rights website, MoneySavingExpert, has a list here and also reports that some credit lenders are enacting similar measures to aid customers. If in doubt, call up the lender and explain the situation; often they can adjust to changed circumstances in lieu of the debt being defaulted on. If they don’t budge – check the “Non-Profits” sections, below. Martin Lewis, founder of MSE has also advised that anyone thinking about transferring debt to 0% interest credit cards (a move done to avoid higher chargers on borrowed money e.g. the new 40% overdraft fees kicking in across major banks from April 2020) should do it asap as acceptance restrictions may be tightened and income streams disappear.

Rent

For private renters, the government has done the bare minimum thus far, only introducing a three-month ban on evictions and new possession proceedings. So in the interim, unions (remember them?) have stepped up. London Renters Union have put together a comprehensive Q&A, walking renters through the steps they should take to ask landlords for rent deferrals (including this handy email template) and action they can take if they refuse. But basically: join a housing union, asap.

OnlyFans

Just kidding, the supply now outweighs the demand.

Non-profits

If your situation demands more urgent and expert advice, for the love of god, please ask for it. It can be very daunting but there are organisations out there explicitly designed for the purpose of supporting vulnerable workers through a crisis. National networks of non-profits like Citizens Advice offer helplines and tailored advice pages for coronavirus, as do debt charities like StepChange or Turn2Us. Unions (I know, I’m sorry, but they’re just so good!) specialise in workers rights. Don’t rely on Mr Google if times are tough; talk to people who can really help make sense of your specific pickle.

Allowance, Jobseekers, ESA

Thanks to coronavirus, the government is relaxing the rules on who can claim what. If you’re on a zero-hours contract, unable to work because of government advice and don’t qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (see below) you can apply for New Style Employment and Support Allowance. Ditto if you’re self-employed and not working thanks to self-isolation.

Turn2Us have a very detailed and helpful guide to the ins and outs of ESA (alongside this Benefit Calculator tool) but it’s essentially a fortnightly benefit payment available to those who’ve made National Insurance contributions (e.g. been in steady work) for the past two years. If you fit the bill, New Style ESA payments will depend on your age and a capability assessment and can range from £57.90 a week to £111.65, with amounts varying if you claim Universal Credit (see below) too or any other benefits. It’s not loads but it’s something. New Style Jobseekers Allowance too can be applied for by anyone who works less than 16 hours a week and is looking for employment but it may be unlikely for people who’ve not paid any NI contributions over the past three years to have their claims approved (because the government doesn’t understand how to lift people out of poverty, innit!).

Virtual

The sphere we will all be working in from now. Remote working is about to take over for a long time so if you’ve got skills that can be employed via nothing more than an internet connection, think about how they can be used. But honestly, it might be more useful to skip to the below section.

Interim employment

Meanwhile, in the physical world, if you don’t want to go on JA and are in a position where you need concrete, regular employment, there are a few industries that are hiring. Healthcare services need support workers, including admin positions and supermarkets are on a “hiring spree” thanks to the British public revealing that a ‘Blitz spirit’ actually means hoarding looroll. Also hiring are the likes of Amazon, Uber Eats and Deliveroo but if you have any choice in the matter, avoid. Especially Amazon.

Reach out

All this is going to be a lot. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, support groups, the internet at large. If you’re really struggling, ask for help, whether that’s via the Facebook mutual aid groups popping up, grassroots organisations and charities, or just Twitter. There’s absolutely no shame in reaching out for a parachute. And people are willing to help, whether that’s through private philanthropy (hello Britney Spears) or more stable, long-term solutions.

Universal Credit

The big beast. If you don’t qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) because you earn under £118 a week/are self-employed, or if you do qualify for SSP but still desperately need a further buffer, look to UC. It’s a system that’s not really fit for purpose but consider it regardless if you’re worried. You can claim online alongside ‘New Style' Employment and Support Allowance for the monthly benefit, which is means-tested, if you’re over 18. For the time being, the government has also suspended the Minimum Income Floor (a sum that’s supposed to predict how much you could be earning and screw your UC payments based on that) and no sick note is needed to claim UC. There is, however, still a five week wait for payments to kick in, unless you get an advance payment -- which is then taken out of future payouts. It's almost as if… UC pushes people further into poverty...

Sick pay

Self-employed people: sorry, stop reading please. There is nothing for you here. As for those on a zero hours contract, don’t believe the hype -- you may actually be able to claim this (underwhelming) £94.25 a week, providing you earn over £118 a week and don’t belong to an ineligible category. If you meet the requirements but your employer still says no, because they’re a greedy capitalist bird, it’s time to get in touch with the likes of Citizens Advice or our old friends, the unions.

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