‘Because she can’t afford the bus fare out of the £106 a fortnight she is left with, she walks to and from the library every day.’ Photograph: Alamy

Valerie, 60, has been diagnosed with depression. Her husband died in 2013 and she was signed off work by her GP and made a claim for employment and support allowance (ESA). When she received notice of a work capability assessment (fit-for-work test) six months later she was anxious, but thought she would be able to explain why she was unable to work at that time.

She became distressed in the waiting room before the assessment, but when the doctor from Maximus, the US company contracted to carry out the tests, soothed her and talked through her problems, she felt there was a human connection and understanding.

In fact, Valerie scored zero points and was found fit for work.

She was placed on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) and instructed to carry out a daily online job search in order to meet the conditions. Valerie had never used the internet before and had no broadband connection or laptop. She went on an IT course, but felt out of her depth and was sanctioned for not doing enough “job-related activity”: she simply wasn’t recording things properly online. The local library where she can use the internet for free is a one and a half mile walk from her home and the return bus fare would be £4.50 a day.

Valerie receives £146.20 in JSA every fortnight and from this £40 goes on her contribution to her rent and the bedroom tax. She would have been exempt from the bedroom tax when her husband was alive because he was over 65. She received a bereavement exemption for a year and became eligible to pay it around the anniversary of his death. There are no one-bedroom properties available for her to move to, and she would prefer to stay in her home as her only friend lives on the same street. Because she can’t afford the bus fare out of the £106 a fortnight she is left with, she walks to and from the library every day.

Valerie has been applying for jobs for 12 months and has only had one interview. She tried to claim ESA again six months ago after she reached a new low and her GP gave her a medical certificate saying she was not fit for work. She was then called to another work capability assessment and was found fit for work again. She scored zero points once more and is back walking to the library five times a week, looking for work.

She hasn’t had time to grieve, which makes her depression worse, as does the fear of the job-hunting process. Her landline was cut off and she rarely puts credit on her mobile as she wants to keep up with rent, the bedroom tax and eating (eating always comes last). She worries about being late for an appointment and not being able to call and so getting sanctioned again.

Source: Distressed, ashamed and hopeless – the experience of being ‘fit for work’ | Dawn Howley | Society | The Guardian

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