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Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Monday, 13 April 2009 14:12 UK
Life after Woolies

Woolworth's sign removal
The signs came down after 99 years as a High Street staple

For many Britons, the true depth of the recession hit last December, when one of the High Street's most enduring institutions called it quits.

When Woolworths conceded - after 99 years of trading - that it was going into administration, some 27,000 people added their names to the UK's burgeoning list of the unemployed.

And with the number of unemployed expected to hit 3 million in Britain this year, Panorama takes you behind the headlines to find out what it is really like to be out of work in 2009.

In Life after Woolies,Panorama follows five former Woolworths staff across the UK as they attempt to claw their way back into work, stave off poverty and keep a roof over their heads.

Along the way some find hope, some find disappointment and frustration and one opts for a new career path. All of them face the initial shock of unemployment and have to take stock of their finances. They find themselves in a job market that is nowhere near as plentiful as a 'pic 'n' mix'.

Loyal, dedicated

We hear from loyal, longtime employees who have never known life without a job to go to each morning. Saturday afternoon jobs as teenagers led to part-time work to pay their way through college and into full-time employment.

It's an absolute nightmare and to be honest I'm getting to breaking point with this because I'm just chasing round in circles
Clare Tremeer

Clare Tremeer is one of them. A single mother who lives near Penzance in Cornwall where, until January, she worked part time on the check-out at her local Woolworths for the past 14 years and has not been without a job for 25 years. Like more than 20,000 of Woolies' staff, she earned minimum wage - just £5.73 an hour. But in this climate, even finding a job that pays at that level is proving difficult.

Clare tells Panorama she recently heard of a job going in the café in the local Morrisons, only to find out that they had 40 applicants for the position. Indeed, despite being a holiday haven, west Cornwall is a low-wage area with high unemployment. Woolworths is just one of 37 empty shops in Penzance. It's a similar story across the UK. More than 40 chain stores have gone into administration since the autumn.

Clare Tremeer
Clare Tremeer said she has never known unemployment before

Clare's troubles were heightened when the loss of her job meant that she no longer qualified for benefits aimed at giving the working poor a reasonable standard of living. She effectively lost the top-up money that helps pay the bills for her and her two teenage sons. With Panorama tagging along, Clare attempts to sign on for Jobseeker's allowance - only to be given the bad news that she does not qualify.

"So at the moment I've no wages coming in, no Jobseeker's allowance so I'm very concerned about that because I don't know what I'm expected to live on.

"It's an absolute nightmare and to be honest I'm getting to breaking point with this because I'm just chasing round in circles."

Panorama follows Clare through a very trying few weeks as the job statistics depicting doom and gloom flow thick and fast.

True 'Woolies family'

In Essex, Stacey and Tony Pattis-Stannard suffered a double blow when Woolworth's closed. A true 'Woolies Family', they both worked there and in one day a comfortable joint income of £40,000 just disappeared. Stacey was fast-tracked through the firm's management programme and earned £25,000.

"I really enjoyed it. I would have stayed there probably until I retire if it had lasted," she says.

The Pattis-Stannard family
The true 'Woolies family' have one more mouth to feed in redundancy

Tony was a warehouse manager who started as an assistant and was running the place within six months. The couple found out that they were about to lose their livelihoods on the BBC's six o'clock news.

The Pattis-Stannards have a young daughter and were expecting their second child when Woolies went under. We hear of the challenge of scraping by on less than £1000 a month - a mixture of dwindling savings, government-funded redundancy, and £94 a week worth of jobseeker's allowance. They have an £800 mortgage payment that has to come out of that money and keeping their family home is their priority.

Stacey said she is angry and upset at the realization that their own determination to work hard and buy their home seems to be coming back to haunt them.

"I chose to put a house over our children's head myself and all we get is £94 a week…it seems as if you help yourself, no one's willing to help you whereas we could quite happily have had a council place, we would have got housing benefit and we wouldn't have to worry about keeping a house over our kids' heads."

Unemployment hangover

In Caerphilly, former Pontypridd store manager Mark Regan is coming to terms with the loss of his £32,000 a year salary.

"I remember the Saturday after my last day we all went down the pub and had a few drinks. I remember waking up with a hangover on Saturday morning, but it wasn't just a hangover from the previous night, it was a hangover thinking 'okay, now I'm unemployed what do I do now?'"

Mark Regan
As a manager, Mark Regan's chances were slightly better

Mark took all the prudent steps when the bad news landed just before Christmas. He and his girlfriend visited their local bank manager and drew up a strict, realistic budget to ensure that the £900 a month mortgage gets paid. He applied for benefits at the Jobscentre Plus and, given his girlfriend's income, was told he can expect £60.50 a week.

"I didn't really think I would get very much because we haven't got children, we were not in council accommodation, we've got our own."

Still, Mark says, an extra £200 a month will help with the bills. Panorama follows him as he lands a coveted interview at the local Lidl supermarket, which advertised for 15 management posts and drew 400 applicants.

Like his colleagues up and down the country, Mark's odds are slim. There have been 165,000 shop assistant job losses in the past year and the number of shop managers looking for work has doubled. But the news is not all grim. Panorama finds that there is a demand for loyal, experienced workers with qualifications. About one in seven of those thrown out of work by Woolworth's have found new jobs - most of them managers.

A new path

In Manchester, Earl Marchan began his career at Woolworth's as a Saturday boy 16 years ago. He worked his way up to Assistant Manager on £18,000 a year before the axe fell. Earl is clear on what he needs to do next - find a new career path.

Earl Marchan
Earl Marchan tried to steer his life away from retail

"I've just completely decided with retail - it's 817 stores in eight weeks to close - there's no security in retail at all - so a complete re-think is what is needed from me now."

But Panorama finds that his local Jobcentre is determined that he cash in on his past experience.

"Most of what they send me will be retail because that's where they feel is the quickest route to get me back into work. I don't want retail - so we're at loggerheads there."

We follow Earl as he takes the plunge into finding out more about the reality of a job in social work and find him both daunted and inspired.

Back in Essex with the Pattis-Stannards, Stacey has applied for a government job and Tony has had just one job interview, despite an aggressive search. Her due date is upon them and their money worries continue to grow, with losing their house being their biggest fear.

The statistics bear out their worry. Every 10 minutes, someone in the UK has their home repossessed - the total number of repossessions is set to double this year to 75,000 properties.

As time ticks by and bank balances dwindle, our former Woolies employees face up to their new challenges as they eat through their savings.

Consumer advisors say we should all have three months wages put by in order to cope with sudden unemployment. Yet the average UK worker has saved just 52 days worth of wages, less than two months. Even more worrying is the statistic that a third of us would be through our savings in just 11 days.

Panorama found that there are still some happy endings to be had, some uncertain transition times ahead and an overall sense of worry for the people who ran what was once the High Street's favourite shop.

Panorama: Life after Woolies is on BBC One, Monday, 13 April at 8.30pm.

'Mr Woolies' keeps memories alive
Monday, 13 April 2009, 13:12 GMT |  Panorama
In pictures: Life after Woolies
Monday, 13 April 2009, 13:01 GMT |  Panorama


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