RailStaff spoke to Railway Benefit Fund’s Ryan Morgan to discuss the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and the pressures of the festive season.
Around one in every ten working people struggles financially and 15% of households are currently under financial stress. If these numbers sound bad enough, remember they’ve been kept in check by low interest rates which have now begun to rise. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit rail workers hard and, with Christmas racing towards us, greater numbers will feel the pinch. Thankfully, the Railway Benefit Fund (RBF) is committed to supporting current, retired, and former railway employees in financial distress.
Formed in 1858, the charity offers practical help and wide-ranging advice, as well as financial grants to help those facing hardship. Their grants are non-repayable and can help towards a range of everyday expenses including rent, mortgage arrears, energy bills, and more. The RBF adopts a holistic system of support and all applicants are offered a check of their benefit entitlements and government support, along with referrals and signposting to other services that can help. Some of these services are funded through the RBF and others are provided externally.
In the past two years, RBF has been busier than ever and that situation that looks set to continue for some time. RBF’S Services Manager, Ryan Morgan, has been with the organisation since 2019. He responds to requests for help and advice and handles applications for financial support. “We receive on average around 10 phone calls every day that can cover any issue whatsoever,” he says. “The only thing we don’t help with are non-priority debts like credit cards and care home costs, but for anything else we’ll talk callers through their options and provide whatever support we can.”
Out of the blue
When Covid-19 came crashing into our lives, the national lockdown decimated jobs and made many people prisoners in their own homes. Whether you lived alone or with others, the experience was extreme and, while it once looked like the end was in sight, the uncertainty of the Omicron variant means further lockdowns can’t be ruled out.
Throughout the pandemic, RBF has supported rail staff who struggled with their finances and well-being. While the Covid outbreak has tested the whole nation, rail workers had a particularly rough ride, often placing their health at risk in public-facing roles, all while working reduced hours. “Staff in the rail industry have felt the impact of Covid-19 hard,” says Ryan. “The majority weren’t furloughed, but they did lose a lot of their overtime income.”
The charity saw a huge increase in demand for its services as the Covid outbreak gained steam. It saw a 60% increase in requests for financial assistance and Ryan’s team dealt with an unprecedented volume of cases. As railway workers struggled to cover the basic costs of living, entire households faced extremely difficult financial situations, and this was further aggravated by the demands that home-schooling placed on families. Again, RBF stepped up to offer its support.
“Back in January and February 2021 we had a limited time fund,” Ryan says. “It was aimed at families who were having to provide home-schooling but didn’t have the means to purchase the equipment this required. We provided funds specifically for items such as laptops, tablets and printers so that children would have the correct equipment and could continue their education.”
The effects of lockdown weren’t entirely financial. During the pandemic, cases of domestic abuse have soared. People who already lived with physical or emotional violence were virtually locked-in with their abusers and the pressure cooker of life under lockdown saw countless new cases arise. The RBF did what it could to help people at risk escape their circumstances.
“We’ve helped quite a lot of domestic abuse survivors get themselves out of their situations and back on their feet,” says Ryan. “We’ve provided funds for a first month of rent, household bills, and even transport. In one case, the funds we provided went towards a vehicle. The individual was unable to use public transport for safety reasons and used part of the grant we provided to buy a car so she could continue working.”
As the pandemic rumbles on its impacts are still felt by rail industry staff. “The requests for support we’re receiving are still largely Covid-related,” says Ryan. “With railway workers on reduced shifts or not getting their Sunday hours, many are struggling to pay their rent or their mortgage. Some people still aren’t quite sure how they’re going to make it to the end of the month for food.”
Ryan also believes it will take some time for the situation to stabilise. For many in the industry, financial problems that were manageable during the early days of the pandemic have deteriorated over time and are now becoming overwhelming.
“I think we are really beginning to see the effects now,” he says. “For example, I’ve recently been working with someone who fell behind on their mortgage at the start of Covid. That has now progressed to the point where they are at risk of losing their house. We’re able to help by providing our maximum grant, which will hopefully be enough for them to avoid eviction. While the Covid situation is easing elsewhere, the effects of lockdown are still being carried over for a lot of our beneficiaries.”
The festive season
While we continue to deal with Covid, we’re also hurtling toward the Christmas season which, while giving most of us a chance to relax and gather with loved ones, also presents financial challenges. The expense of the season can tip those on the brink of problem debt over the edge as they try to provide a Christmas to remember. The period is always especially busy for RBF which rolls out season-specific initiatives to help alleviate the financial burden.
“We’re always busy during the Christmas period,” Ryan says. “We regularly see people who are not able to cover food costs and we provide emergency funds, specifically targeting beneficiaries through the Children’s Fund. Our usual grant scheme is always open, year-round, with a particular focus on debt. Many people get into debt around Christmas and, as well as providing grants, we also help to try to avoid that. We have a referral scheme with Manchester’s Citizen Advice who can provide benefit checks and budgeting advice. We also have a budgeting calculator on our website, which we would encourage all people to use, so they understand what they can and can’t afford this Christmas.”
“Anyone who has received help from us this year, and who has children at home, is also eligible for a £40 Argos gift voucher. We send these out at the end of the year, just before Christmas. This isn’t a crisis-led grant, it’s for beneficiaries who’ve come to us during the year so we can help provide their children with a nice Christmas. These vouchers will be provided for around 200 children this year and that’s because most of the requests we’ve seen for help during Covid have been child centred. Families with small children have really been affected.”
Get in touch
If you are facing financial distress, or any life event made more difficult by your finances, RBF can help. Their monetary grants and access to expert advice can help you overcome tough situations which may impact your financial, family, mental and physical well-being. The team can be contacted by phone or email and online at www.railwaybenefitfund.org.uk/contact-us.
Conversely, if you’d like to help make a difference to people’s lives, then contact the team. RBF would not be able to support their beneficiaries in the railway industry without the aid of generous donors and fundraisers. There are many ways in which you can assist and help raise valuable funds. To find out how you can help, visit www.railwaybenefitfund.org.uk/how-you-can-help.
This Christmas, RBF are aiming to raise £40,000, which will allow them to support 130 more families with their Children’s Fund. Donate to support their Christmas Children’s Appeal at: www.justgiving.com/campaign/rbfchristmas.
Image credits: istockphoto.com / RBF