Zero hour contracts

There are over 1.8 million zero hour contracts agreed annually, but what does it actually mean if you’re on one? What are the benefits of a zero hour contract? What are the downsides? Can you refuse to work? And can you still claim benefits on a zero hour contract? The Mix explains all.

A young couple are walking down the road. They are discussing zero hour contracts. This is a full-body image.

What is a zero hour contract?

This is one of the types of employment contracts. It means you’re not guaranteed any work – and if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Seems pretty straight forward at first glance but there’s a lot more to it. As far as your employment status is concerned, you’re a contracted worker. This means that you benefit from some employment law protections on a zero hour contract, which we’ll tell you more about in a minute.

There’s no legal definition for this type of contract, but it usually means that:

  • Your employer doesn’t have to find you work – they’ll only ask you to work if they have some readily available. 
  • You may not get work offered regularly – your boss doesn’t have to offer it, but it works both ways. You also don’t have to accept work offered to you. Basically, it’s practically the opposite of working full-time.
  • The workload can vary A LOT– you might only work at certain times of year, or get more hours when things are busy.

Where am I likely to be offered one?

They’re often found in seasonal jobs, i.e. in sectors where demand for workers and employees can go up and down. These include:

  • Retail – from high-street supermarkets to online shops.
  • Catering and hospitality – including restaurants, pub chains, hotels and events like weddings.
  • Tourism and leisure – including theme parks and cinemas.
  • Security – sports grounds and music venues usually need more staff at busy times.
  • Care work – which often involves working on-call.

I’m on a zero hour contract. Do I have any legal rights?

You’re not guaranteed any work or pay, but that doesn’t mean you’re not guaranteed rights. These include annual leave, National Minimum Wage and holiday pay.

Your health and safety should also be protected in the workplace. So you also have the right not to be discriminated against, including if you’re pregnant. Your boss can’t use that as a reason not to give you work. So if they do, you can take them to an employment tribunal.

Like workers on set hours contracts, you’re still entitled to rest breaks on a zero hour contract. This means you should have:

  • 20 minutes rest for every six hours worked.
  • 11 hours’ uninterrupted rest in every 24-hour period.
  • 24 uninterrupted hours in every seven-day period.

Before signing a zero hour contract, it’s a good idea to make sure you understand what’s in it. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the legal stuff then contact organisations like CAB and ACAS to help make sense of it.

On a zero hour contract and refuse to work?

You can absolutely refuse to work on a zero hour contract. What’s more, you shouldn’t face any consequences for doing so. The idea behind this type of contract is that you have no minimum commitment. Of course, if you constantly refuse to work you might find your employer offers you fewer hours in general.

Can I work for another company whilst on a zero hour contract?

Yes you can work for another company whilst on a zero hour contract. There used to be ‘exclusivity clauses’ that stopped this, but luckily they’re no longer applicable: 

  • Exclusivity clauses were banned in 2015 because the government decided they were doing more harm than good. “They potentially limit your ability to earn a good wage,” says Chloe Themistocleous of JMW Solicitors.
  • If you’re asked to sign a contract that includes one, don’t be afraid to ask them to take it out. “And if you’ve already agreed to this type of clause, it probably won’t be enforceable” says Chloe.
  • If you want to work for another company, Chloe says to tell your boss. “It’s always a good idea to explain your reasons for going elsewhere,” she says. “You should also make sure that they’re happy with your decision so that you can avoid any potential problems in the future.”

Zero hour contract benefits

The most important of all the zero hour contract benefits is flexibility. You’re not tied to set hours, which is exactly what some people are looking for.

“If you’re a student or have other commitments like caring for a child or relatives, then this type of work may be ideal,” says Chloe. “You have the power to pick and choose when you work.”

I’m on a zero hour contract, can I claim benefits?

One question that’s probably high on your priority list is Being on a zero hour contract, can I claim benefits? 

Well, if you’re on a zero hour contract you may still be able to claim Universal Credit and Council Tax Support. Universal Credit is available to those on low incomes. The amount you’re paid is based on how much you’re earning, so it’s best to keep detailed records of this info. Council tax support is the same story. The levels vary and are set by local councils. If you want some support with this, find your local council here.

You can learn more about Universal Credit here and Council Tax Support here.

Do I still get sick pay?

Yes, you can get statutory sick pay on this type of contract provided that you:

  • Have actually started work with your employer
  • Are sick for four full days or more in a row (including non-working days), or you’ve been told to isolate due to coronavirus
  • Earn an average of at least £120 per week (before tax)

If you wanna find out more about sick pay, just read our article on the topic.

What benefits will I lose on a zero hour contract?

If you’re on a zero hour contract, you probably won’t have automatic rights to maternity, paternity or adoption leave. Plus you won’t get a notice period or statutory redundancy pay.

I’m on Universal Credit. Can I also have a zero hour contract and refuse to work?

This depends on your universal credit claimant commitment. If the job offer is a match or similar to the kind of work you’ve agreed to look for, then probably. You may face sanctions if you don’t accept it – unless you have a good reason to turn it down. For example, caring responsibilities or mental health issues.

Have you had experience of working a zero hour contract? How did it work for you? Let us know on our discussion boards.

Next Steps

  • Use the Turn2Us calculator to work out what benefits and grants you're entitled to, or call their helpline on 0808 802 2000
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Anne Wollenberg

Updated on 11-Feb-2022