I write this in the hope that the reader like me would wish to draw attention to the plight of a group of people in our community. These people are amongst the lowest paid and often the lowest regarded while at the same time carry out an essential and vital service that the most vulnerable of us depend on. I speak of social care workers who work tirelessly to ensure that the disabled, the infirm, the elderly and those near to the end of their lives are comfortable, safe and cared for.
Social care workers are charged with massive amounts of responsibility, they are expected to understand and comply with the complex regulations and legislation that apply to social care. During the induction process of the company I work for we were addressed by the CEO who informed us that social care is the second most regulated industry in the UK, second only to the nuclear power industry. Of course this level of regulation is necessary to protect the vulnerable.
We can all look forward to the advancing of years and anyone of us can fall victim to debilitating disease, it's not just our parents or our grandparents that we need to consider but it is us as well. The care we give to those in need now will be the same care the we ourselves will come to need in the future. Will we be satisfied when we are in receipt of the care that our community has to offer? Can we be sure that the care that we want to receive will be as good as the care that we currently afford those in need?
What is it that draws people to work in the social care industry? Is it the financial rewards of being a care worker that motivates and inspires the industries workforce. With most social care workers being paid an hourly rate at or near the National Minimum Wage it would require a person to work eighty hours a week to earn what is currently our nations average income, when you add on the hours of unpaid travel time that most social care workers do. So perhaps it's not the money!
Is it the zero hours contracts, that are widely used in social care settings, that attract people? M'mm I wonder how mortgage providers view applications from people on zero hours contracts, even if they are working for eighty hours a week? Care company executives say their workers like these contracts as it gives them flexibility. What rubbish! What they do is provide a flexible workforce to companies at the expense of their low paid staff's security. Besides, since June 2014 when the Flexible Working Initiative was implemented all workers are entitled to apply to their employers for flexible working conditions. Employers can only refuse if they can prove it would damage their business.
Obviously social care workers are valued by their employers, or are they? The company that I work for are among many that say they value their staff but some of the employment practices they use bring this into question. I will describe below a number of examples:
Payment for sickness absence: Statutory Sick Pay is the norm here, which provides £88.45 a week to staff once they have been off for four consecutive days. Because it is paid on a daily rate and only for the days that a person normally works, not everyone will receive the full weekly allowance. A social care worker who continues to work while unwell and possibly with an infection would put their vulnerable clients at risk and is expected to absent themselves from work. Unfortunately a carers professionalism is not rewarded and it's not too difficult to envisage why someone would prefer to carry on working. I personally have picked up infections from clients which have resulted in me taking time off work to recover. Like all social care workers I am obliged to observe strict infection prevention and control practices but even with the best working practices infections and virus's put workers at risk. Instead of being compensated for the effects of a workplace hazard, social care workers are often penalised financially.
The law states that care workers time spent travelling between care calls counts as working time and should be used in the calculation to ensure all workers receive the National Minimum Wage. Very few care providing companies observe this ruling. My employer has introduced a policy that states if a worker has 30 minutes or more between clients they assume the worker has had time to take a break, irrespective of how long is spent travelling and is therefor not entitled to any pay for their time spent travelling. Unfortunately this policy was agreed by a HMRC National Minimum Wage Compliance Officer (who obviously didn't understand the rules). Discussions with managers has resulted in me being told by an executive that until the HMRC or a judge tells them differently their policy will stand. Does that support the view that I am valued?
A recent ruling by the European Courts on the Working Time Directive means that workers who travel to their place of work but don't have a regular office or workshop base have to be paid for the time spent travelling to their first call and from their last call back to their home. No doubt this will have caused the policy makers in Care Providers up and down the land to draft reasons why they should ignore this ruling. I believe the company I work for are to make an announcement on this sometime in the future.
Most community based social care workers need to own or have access to a motor vehicle to carry out their work. This wasn't a requirement in my terms of employment and I don't know of any other workers who have that in their contract. But in most cases it would not be possible to work without having means of transport. It is a company requirement however for me to have my car insured for business as well as pleasure.
My company pays me 35p per mile for using my car, yet it costs me 52p per mile to operate it (AA 2013 rates). The HMRC say I can receive 45p per mile tax free for using my own car and because of this I am able to claim tax relief on the difference of what I am paid and what the HMRC will allow. So, as I pay income tax at the 20% rate I claim 2p per mile back at the end of each tax year. The result is, I subsidise my employer by 15p for every mile that I use my car on their behalf.
My employer tells me that their mileage reimbursement policy is a generous one in comparison to what other companies pay. This is indeed a problem throughout the industry and is again something that questions the value placed on social care workers by their employers. Also the company I work for charges clients when we take them out in our cars on domestic and pleasure trips at the rate of 40p per mile but only 35p per mile is paid to the member of staff who buys, taxes, insures, fuels and maintains the vehicle. Does this help us feel valued?
I recently experienced another instance of feeling less than valued. This resulted from a letter from our CEO announcing what the new rates of pay will be after the increase to the National Minimum Wage hourly rate as from 1st October. This new hourly rate is 5p per hour above NMW, which is exactly the same as my hourly rate was two years ago before I did a Level 3 Diploma in Health & Social Care. It was a condition of my employment that I undergo NVQ training. I did this study in my own free time in the belief that I would receive an enhancement of 34p per hour on completion and receipt of my certificates. I don't regret studying for and gaining the qualifications I now have, I am however disappointed to discover that my efforts are not valued as much as I was led to believe they would be.
Do we now live in an age where it is unfashionable to value employees? Or is it simply that we can't afford to? Our government are on a programme of reducing costs, services and taxes in a determined effort to reduce our national debt. The wisdom of these measures and whether they will in fact prove effective will be for the future to decide. What is actually happening now, is having an effect now.
The local authorities who are the main commissioners of social care have seen year on year reductions in the central grants that they receive from government. In other words central government is squeezing local government. As a result local authorities have less resources to direct towards social care, the rates they are prepared or in fact can offer to care providers are affected by this. The effect of this is the local authorities/commissioners in turn are squeezing the care providers.
I understand from senior managers that more and more the local authorities offer lower hourly rates for care than the actual cost to the company for providing that care. So then, it's not too difficult to conclude that the care providers in turn are squeezing their social care workers in order to survive. Yes, that means me; I am being squeezed. Why don't they simply say to the commissioners 'no, we can't do that'? I suspect that if they did there would be no shortage of other companies that would say 'we can do it'. Perhaps there are too many care provider companies.
The effect of being squeezed is that I feel less valued than I did. The knowledge that my employers are now taking on work that costs them more than they receive for doing it does not give me confidence or indeed job security. Central government have made laws and regulations that stipulate that I should be paid a minimum for each hour that I work, yet it seems that they contribute to the reasons that in real terms I get less than my entitlement.
This debate is not just about how we as a society treat low paid workers. The fact that low paid workers are valued less than they should be by this continued 'squeezing' is a symptom of the problem which we have to address.
I think it's now an accepted fact that all developed nations have ageing populations. Advances in medical sciences mean that we can all look forward to living longer both when we are in good health and also when we require looking after by others. What we have to decide is, how important is good social care, how do we want to fund it and how much are we prepared to spend on it, simple!
The difficulty, is getting us all to agree. Our politicians, when they want us to vote for them, tell us that they will make sure that our health and social services will be funded so that we get the best care. After the election the government tells us that they have to make difficult decisions that result in cutting the budgets on care. The parties in opposition say they would do it differently but their debating doesn't change anything. Meanwhile the budgets continue to be cut, the services in turn are trimmed and some stopped altogether which doesn't improve the care for those in need or the plight of the social care worker. So perhaps we can't leave it entirely in the hands of politicians. What can we do?
Given that all the influence, control and squeezing is from the top downwards isn't making life any better for social care workers and the people they look after, can we start creating pressure from the bottom and push it back up? I think we can. We can tell our employers that it is no longer acceptable to squeeze us, that we have no one to squeeze. We can tell them that it is their responsibility to manage the company well and not accept work for less than it costs. OK, so they may choose not to listen to us and carry on squeezing and being squeezed. But, if we keep applying the pressure contra to the pressure we are under they may get annoyed enough to start pushing the pressure back up the slope. Then and only then will we have a chance of reversing what is more and more becoming inevitable.
If we don't start doing something about this now the quality of social care will degrade instead of improve. Care providing companies will be forced to cut corners as well as continuing to squeeze their workers. It may be that as a nation we don't want to spend any more on looking after the people who have care needs. What I feel we do need to do is have the debate not just in Parliament or the local council chambers. We all have the responsibility to get involved, say what we want for our future and that of our families and yes we have to decide if we are willing to pay for it.
Can we afford to ignore the problems? I am of the view that we can't, it simply won't just go away. Things will change however, next April with the introduction of the National Living Wage will bring another round of squeezing. How long will it be before the unprofitable care providing companies decide it's simply not worth it and close down. This will happen if we don't do something to prevent it. Perhaps it needs to happen for the industry to rationalise and reform, forcing us to face and make the decisions that have to be made.
We can no longer leave this issue in the hands of politicians and risk an outcome affected by what they think will get them re-elected. We have to decide if we want our parents and grandparents, our brothers and sisters and our children to be able to access care services when they need them and if we do, we have to pay for them.
As a social care worker I have a voice and a vote. I will make sure my employer and the candidates who want my vote know my views. I will be asking my employer, local councillors and my member of parliament to consider them. I will also ask them to consider and seek the views of all the people that depend on the input of their social care workers, they have a voice too.
I would like to invite all my colleagues in social care to express their views, tell their employers and elected representatives what they want social care to be like in the future.
By Ed McMullan