Emma is married with a 3 year old son. She is a receptionist at the local community centre and her husband has recently become self-employed. She is on a ‘tertiary’ contract with the council, which is a temporary contract detailing which hours she will get every 12 weeks, on a rotational basis. Under this contract she does not get paid if she is not at work, e.g. for holidays or sickness, and she does not know how her hours will change each 12 week period.

In February, Emma explained how the previous Christmas the community centre where she works was closed for the two-week holiday period. This meant that she was not at work and so was not paid. The impact of this is that she had a very low January wage and was still playing catch up financially by the end of March. She struggled because her childcare costs and other costs are the same despite her varying wages.

Emma explains that sometimes she is offered extra hours and this has resulted in a higher monthly wage. Her monthly income from the council for the previous 12 month period ranges from a normal income of approximately £1,000 per month, to low income of approximately £600 per month, to a high income of approximately £1,400 per month. The difficulty for Emma is the instability of her income which makes forward planning difficult, means that her tax credits change frequently, usually resulting in her owing a huge overpayment to them, and means that she micro-manages her income on an almost daily basis.

‘I was getting three different lots of pay (from the same employer on different temporary contracts) but I had no holiday pay… if I was off sick, or if the centre was closed for holidays, I would get no pay. So what I've done, I was looking for a permanent post within the Council, just for a bit more stability really because, for instance at Christmas the centre was closed for two weeks... so December, January, and even February, I was playing catch up trying to get on top of finances again’.

Emma has had problems with her tax credits due to her varying income. She calls them at least on a monthly basis to give an updated monthly wage and increases in childcare where relevant, but this still results in problems with tax credits. For example, she received a letter from the child tax credits saying that she had received an overpayment of more than £1,300 which they will be seeking to reclaim in the tax year 2014-15. This has come as a great shock to her as she has been very vigilant about updating them on the constant changes to her circumstances. Emma says that they will struggle to repay this overpayment:

If we are due money, then we are really going to be scuppered. But on the other side, if they are giving us money then we are going to be scared to spend it’.

She and her husband now have a policy of not withdrawing tax credits during the same financial year to avoid future hardship: a clearly paradoxical situation.

At the most recent interview with Emma she was not receiving any tax credits at all due to the previous overpayment:

‘Currently we’re not receiving any tax credits. We’ve not had anything for a wee bit and anything we do receive no would be offset against the over payment received. But we’ve come to the conclusion now that it’s been so much more hassle than it’s worth that, I think if I’m entitled to something then I should get it, but I’m scared to spend it. So anything that comes in now we’ve had a decision that were going to keep it aside and keep it until the next tax year because that is, they are looking for almost a grand and a half from me’.

‘Our income and expenditure was up and down all the time and I think that’s where some of the problems have lied with the overpayment, so it got a bit messy’.

Emma’s aim for her family is to get to a position where they don’t have to be involved with tax credits at all. Her son starts school in the summer and she would like to eventually be able to work more hours. ‘Just to feel we are supporting ourselves and that we are in a good financial position again’.

Names have been changed to protect anonymity and photos of models are courtesy of © NHS Scotland 2011.