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Can you get housing benefit on a zero hours contract?

Posted 12 July 2016

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How do the hours you work affect your benefits?

It can be really hard to afford the essentials if you’re on a low income. You might find it difficult to meet your rent, electricity or council tax – and your situation can be tougher still if you’re on a zero hours contract.

A zero hours contract is one where you end up working different hours each week, so your earnings vary week to week. If you’re on a zero hours contract and you’re struggling with your housing costs, you might look at applying for housing benefit.

But how does your job affect your benefits claim? Let’s take a look at the facts.

Check out our blog on zero hours contracts for more advice about how they work and how it could affect your budgeting.

Benefits and your hours

The number of hours you work in an average week affects whether you can claim some benefits. These are Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA), Income Support, Working Tax Credit and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). For example, if you work more than 16 hours a week, this could affect whether you can claim (JSA) or Income Support.

If your income changes from week to week, you’ll need to average your hours to work out if you can claim. Let’s say you always work for 21 hours a week for two weeks and then have a week with no work, you average your hours over three weeks – which gives you 14 hours a week. If your hours are different every week, you average it over the past five weeks.

But this doesn’t help when you’re trying to claim housing benefit. With housing benefit, the council will look at how much you earn each week, not how many hours you work. If you get JSA, ESA or Income Support, you can claim the maximum housing benefit.

Don’t worry if you don’t get any of these benefits – it doesn’t mean you definitely can’t claim housing benefit. The council just needs to work out your average wage to see if you’re eligible. If you’re on weekly wages, they will average your last five pay packets. If you get paid every two weeks, they’ll average your last three wages and if you’re paid monthly, they’ll average your last two wages.

Universal Credit is currently rolling out across the UK and is set to replace JSA, Income Support, Housing Benefit, ESA and Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit. You can find out when it will be in your area on the Gov.uk site. If you’re worried about how you’ll cope on the benefit, read our blog on budgeting on Universal Credit.

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How it can affect you

Once the council knows your average wage, they can work out if you should get housing benefit based on how much your rent is. But if you’re on a zero hours contract and your income changes every week, this might not be the end of the story.

Depending on your situation, the council might ask you to tell them when your wage changes or they might want to know how much you were paid over the last month. What the council needs to know will depend on your individual circumstances – you should ask the council and see what they’ll need from you.

A fluctuating income from a zero hours contract means your housing benefit could change if the council thinks your situation has changed. This could make it difficult to budget as you might not always know how much you’ve got coming in from week to week.

What’s more, if you don’t tell the council about any changes to your income when they’ve told you to do this, you might get too much housing benefit. You’ll need to repay this and the council could take it out of your future housing benefit payments.

How to cope

If you’re struggling with debt repayments on top of your essential bills because you’re on a zero hours contract, it could be a sign that you’re starting to lose control of your finances. Your essential bills should always come first and if you’re having trouble affording these because of your income and your unsecured debts, you should seek help.

Speak to a debt expert here at Debt Advisory Centre if you’re looking for help with your debts and you can’t see a way forward. You can do this using any of the options to the left. They’ll tell you about the different debt solutions and if any of these are right for your situation. If you’re just looking for some advice on how you can manage your budgeting, the Money Advice Service has lots of free and impartial information.

by Emily Bancroft

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To find out more about managing your money and getting free debt advice, visit Money Advice Service, an independent service set up to help people manage their money.