Business

Thomas Cook staff say 'benefits system has failed them'

Betty Knight
Image caption Betty Knight was left bewildered

When Thomas Cook collapsed three months ago, staff like Betty Knight, who had worked as cabin crew for 12 years, thought they'd be able to fall back on the welfare system.

But she was left bewildered. When she needed help she struggled to get it. Her application for job seeker's allowance was repeatedly declined.

She's one of dozens who have contacted the BBC in the same situation.

"I've worked hard. I've done everything expected of me to contribute to our society, but when I needed the Department for Work and Pensions, I haven't been able to access that. It left me reeling."

After being out of work for 11 weeks, Betty has now received around five weeks' of benefits.

Lots of her former Thomas Cook colleagues are in worse situations, telling us they have received nothing and have been poorly advised by their job centres. It stems from confusion over whether they are entitled to job seeker's allowance or universal credit as the tour operator's administration process remains ongoing.

Image caption Ian Begg has felt anxious and depressed since Thomas Cook went bust

Take Ian Begg who worked as a cabin manager for 14 years. "When we lost Thomas Cook we were just left to go out to pasture," he says. "My treatment by the job centre has felt like I've been thrown out again. They made me feel not worthy of benefits."

He was initially told to claim for universal credit which would have a five week processing time. During that five week period, he travelled to Manchester from his parents' house in Scotland for a weekly appointment at the job centre.

However, a day before the first payment was due, his claim was cancelled because he had received a one-off payment from the liquidators of Thomas Cook. He was then advised he should have applied for job seeker's allowance.

Mistakes mean claims being cancelled and long waits to recoup missed payments.

Other former staff have worse stories to tell but are afraid to speak out in case it affects their benefits claims.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Thomas Cook collapsed in September after last ditch rescue talks failed

Ian has worked all his life and, like Betty, expected to be able to access state support after he was made redundant. He's now given up, and is using his savings and support from his family to live on, before he starts a new job with another airline in 2020.

Rebecca, another former Thomas Cook worker, was heavily pregnant when the firm collapsed. Any prospect of receiving maternity benefits from the company vanished, so she applied for state support.

Eight weeks after applying, however, the claim was cancelled because she'd been sent the wrong paperwork. She's now waiting for a new application to be processed.

"Due to the stress of everything, and the lack of help, I have found myself on anti-depressants and unable to enjoy Christmas and time with my baby," she says.

'The system has failed us'

Ian Begg says he too suffered mental health problems following the firm's failure. "For about two weeks after the collapse, I couldn't even get dressed. I couldn't face the world and stayed indoors. I had anxiety and was depressed."

Ian is managing to slowly move forwards, but many of his former colleagues are still having a tough time, he says, and the difficulties around accessing welfare support have made it worse. "It's wrong, the system has failed us."

Betty Knight is in contact with hundreds of former colleagues through Facebook and WhatsApp support groups. They are a close-knit community.

One friend and her partner who both worked for Thomas Cook, say they were kicked out of their flat because the landlord knew they would struggle to pay the rent. They are now using their redundancy money to pay for a B&B. Betty says they feel trapped, unable to secure new accommodation or work.

She reports other cases of former colleagues made homeless and living in shelters after landlords refused to allow them to stay on while they tried to find new employment.

Some former Thomas Cook employees have fared better. Ian Houlihan was a Thomas Cook pilot for more than 20 years. "I've been lucky, my job centre in Chorley has been great. I've had access to training. But my other colleagues have been treated appallingly."

Image caption Thomas Cook staff protested outside parliament in October, claiming they had been misled by the company

Lots of staff talk about the huge disparities between what is on offer between different job centres.

Adele (not her real name) worked as cabin crew for 20 years. When she lost her job at Thomas Cook she was offered the opportunity of a job at Jet2, last week voted one of the UK's best airlines by Which? Magazine readers.

But, in line with its recruitment policy, Jet2 charges the applicant £700 to train on a four-week Jet2 course. Trainees don't receive any pay while on the course and the applicant fronts all costs. They then have to pass exams at the end to be guaranteed a job.

In some instances, job centres have given applicants £700 to complete this training but in other cases they have refused to pay. Adele says her job centre told her to borrow the money. "How can I?" she says. "I've been out of work for 12 weeks."

Jet2 said this was its standard recruitment process and would not comment further.

The Department for Work and Pensions has apologised. "We are sorry if people have experienced delayed payments and urge them to stay in contact with their job centre so we can urgently fix their claims.

"We know that losing a job is a distressing time for people. When Thomas Cook collapsed we were ready on day one to help the 11,000 people who lost their jobs.

"Our dedicated staff have helped thousands of those affected, including through home visits to those unable to reach the job centre and by fast-tracking applications so people are supported to find new work or training as soon as possible."

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