What is the Employment and Support Allowance, who can get it and how much does it pay?

Employment and Support Allowance could provide hundreds of pounds towards living costs if you cannot work.

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If you’re unable to work due to a health condition or disability, you may be able to claim Employment and Support Allowance. This could provide more than £100 a week to put towards soaring living costs, so it’s important to check if you’re eligible.

At a time when prices are rising all around, any opportunity to bring in some extra money should be investigated. While the government is offering a cost of living support package, there may be other financial help out there that you’re entitled to - from the Employment and Support Allowance to the Marriage Allowance, and Child Benefit.  

Anna Stevenson, senior welfare benefits specialist at Turn2Us, says: “People on the lowest incomes will be the hardest hit in the coming months but there are steps we can all take to make sure we’re always checking how to boost our income.

“Running a financial health check every six months is a great step we can all take to ensure we are receiving all the money we are entitled to and to top up our income.”

Here, we explain how to find out if you’re eligible, and how to go about claiming this benefit.

What is the Employment and Support Allowance and how does it work? 

The Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit paid to people who are aged between 16 and State Pension age who are unable to work because of a physical or mental illness, or disability. You may claim if you’re temporarily ill with plans to go back to work, or if you’re off work long term.

The ‘old-style’ ESA was paid before the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC), which completed in December 2018. This was made up of both contributory ESA, based on your national insurance contribution record, and income-related means-tested ESA. If you’re already claiming income-related ESA, you’ll be moved to Universal Credit by the end of 2024.

The majority of people can now only claim the ‘new-style’ ESA, which is contributory, meaning it’s based on your national insurance (NI) record. 

Richard Machin, senior lecturer in social work and health at Nottingham Trent University, says: “Beware that once you’ve moved to Universal Credit you can’t return to claiming income-related ESA, and you may be better off staying on the old benefit while you can. But rules are complex so you’d need to seek advice in these circumstances.”

If you’re claiming the new-style ESA, you’ll be placed into one of two groups - the ‘work-related activity’ group, and the ‘support group’. The ESA ‘work-related activity’ group are those people who are capable of taking steps towards moving into work, and will be capable of returning to work. The ESA ‘support group’ are considered to have severe health problems that prevent them from undertaking work or work-related activities, such as courses. 

The group you are placed into will affect both how long you’ll receive payments for and how much you can get.

What is the criteria for claiming ESA? 

To be eligible for the new-style ESA, you must’ve been working and paid enough national insurance contributions (NICs) over the previous two tax years. You’re able to claim ESA if you’re self-employed, too, provided you’ve paid enough NICs. You can easily check your NI record at gov.uk to see where you stand, or call HMRC on 0300 200 3500.

You’re allowed to earn up to £140 a week without this affecting your entitlement to ESA, but only if you’re doing ‘permitted work’ (find out more below). But if you get income from a private pension of more than £85 a week your benefit will be reduced.

You’re able to claim ESA at the same time as other benefits such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Universal Credit.

Ken Butler, welfare rights and policy adviser at charity Disability Rights UK, says: “The cost-of-living crisis means that it’s more important than ever that disabled people and those with long-term health conditions make sure they are receiving all the benefits they are entitled to and at the correct amounts. For example, Personal Independence Payment is a useful benefit to consider as it is paid on top of all others and can be a passport to other forms of help.”

There are useful benefit calculators at Turn2us and Entitledto that can clarify what you’re entitled to claim. You can also find local sources of independent advice organisations across the UK on the Advicelocal website by putting in your postcode, while Disability Rights UK also has  free factsheets and guides on its website. 

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How much is the Employment and Support Allowance and how is it paid? 

How much ESA you get will depend on multiple factors including the stage your application is at, your age and whether you are able to return to work. You can get a maximum of £117.60 a week. The exact amount you receive depends on whether you’re in the assessment period, and whether you are in the ‘support group’ or ‘work-related activity group’. The money is paid directly into your account every two weeks.

You’ll spend up to 13 weeks on an ‘assessment rate’ when you apply for ESA. If you’re under age 25, this amounts to £61.05 a week, and if you’re over 25, it’s £77 a week. Your first payment at the assessment rate should be made after two weeks.  If your assessment runs for longer than 13 weeks, you’ll stay on this rate, but any future increase will be backdated to the 14th week of your original claim.

Once your claim is processed, you’ll be put into one of two groups: if you’re unfit for work but able to do some work-related activities such as taking courses (work-related group), you’ll get £77 a week for a year. If you’re unfit for work and unfit for any work-related activity (support group), you’ll get the maximum £117.60 a week. There’s no time limit for how long you receive payments in the support group. 

If you’re assessed as being fit to work you won’t have to repay the money you received on the assessment rate.

How to claim – step-by-step guide

  1. Check if you’re eligible to claim ESA at Gov.uk. You’ll need to answer some questions to ensure you’re eligible, and if you are, you’ll complete a form.
  2. Apply online using this form, and answer a series of questions. You’ll need your national insurance number and bank details to fill in the application.
  3. You’ll receive a letter for an appointment with a work coach to discuss whether you’ll take part in work-related activities, or if you’re not able to continue in work.
  4. Once you’ve gone through the assessment stage, you’ll receive a letter telling you whether you’re entitled to ESA, and how much you’ll receive. But initially, you’ll receive payments at the assessment rate.
  5. To continue receiving ESA, you’ll need to regularly send ‘fit notes’ – which are printed or digital letters signed by a healthcare professional - and include any details of a change in circumstances, such as getting a new job. You’ll be told during your assessment how often you must send these, depending on your personal situation.
  6. You’ll need to complete and send the ESA50 form - also called the ‘capability for work questionnaire’ - around two to three months after you first apply for ESA. This is used to help the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decide if you cannot work due to illness or disability.
  7. If necessary, at some stage you might receive a letter requesting that you attend a Work Capability Assessment as a further evaluation.
  8. Next, you will receive a final decision about how much you’ll get, or whether you need to be assessed again.

Can I work while claiming ESA? 

Yes, you can do some 'permitted' work if you claim ESA, but if you exceed what is allowed you will lose the benefit and will be regarded as fit for work. This can be any type of work provided it’s for 16 hours a week on average, and you don’t earn more than £152 a week.

Permitted work may also include, for example, taking a particular course that’ll build up your skills and experience to return to full-time employment, or voluntary work. You’ll need to complete a permitted work form and submit this to your local Jobcentre.

Can I claim Employment and Support Allowance if I’m receiving sick pay? 

You can’t get ESA at the same time as statutory sick pay, maternity pay or Jobseeker’s Allowance.

If you’re employed but unable to work, you’ll typically get Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from your employer for 28 weeks. However, you can start your ESA claim up to three months before your SSP ends. It’s important to claim ESA early to ensure your benefit payments start as soon as possible.

What should I do if my circumstances change? 

If you’re claiming ESA, you’ll need to report changes in your circumstances such as starting work, moving house, and any changes to your medical condition or disability. You can do this by calling your Jobcentre Plus, or writing to the office that pays your ESA, which should be on any letters you receive. 

Personal finance expert
Harriet Meyer is an award-winning freelance consumer finance journalist. She has more than 20 years’ experience writing about personal finance for a wide range of broadsheet newspapers, consumer websites and magazines. Harriet’s work can mainly be read in the Guardian, and on various money websites and women’s lifestyle magazines. Previously, she worked as editor of The Observer’s ‘Cash’ section, and was also part of the Daily Telegraph’s Money team. In addition to print, she’s worked as a BBC producer on radio money shows such as Wake Up to Money. She’s won several awards, including the Santander Media Awards Freelance Journalist of the Year. Harriet has a passion for helping people to make the most of their hard-earned cash (particularly after her mum asked her what an ISA was), and understand the complex stuff such as pensions and investing – without the jargon! She can be found tweeting at Harriet_Meyer.