Christina McAnea, Assistant General Secretary, UNISON
Underfunded and in a precarious state. That’s the phrase MPs used last year to describe the state of social care in the UK – and there has been little improvement since.
The government has consistently shirked calls for reform of a sector that is facing a financial ‘black hole’ and now beyond crisis point.
This failure to invest is already having a major impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society.
Care staff too are suffering because of precarious employment practices such as zero hours contracts and endemic underpayment of the national minimum wage.
For too many, low wages are a result of employers only paying them for the time they spend caring for people in their own homes. Not for the hours they are travelling between visits.
Being supported in this way enables people to live independently for as long as possible instead of in residential care. For many who are old or have disabilities, it is essential for their personal freedom and quality of life.
However, this is only possible because care workers are able to look after people in their own homes. On a daily basis and whatever the weather, they have to arrange their own transport to visit often a long list of clients.
Whether helping someone get out of bed, get washed and dressed, take medication, or eat, home care workers provide vital support. Often, their friendly face is the only one the person they are supporting gets to see from one day to the next.
This contact time with vulnerable adults is invaluable.
Yet employers are effectively taking advantage of staff by only paying them when they step in off the street and start delivering care.
A freedom of information request conducted by UNISON has shown that more than half (54%) of councils commissioning homecare services don’t insist companies pay for travel time.
Our findings show they don’t make it a contractual condition that agencies providing care on their behalf pay their workers for travel time between visits.
We want local councils that commission services to ensure contracts meet the legal requirements of the Care Act 2014. This legislation states that providers should pay staff ‘appropriate remuneration for any time spent travelling between appointments’.
Home care workers should receive decent wages that reflect their skills along with holiday and sick pay, and a pension. This will help to recruit and retain quality staff to what is a growing sector of the UK economy.
Commissioning bodies should accurately reflect the true costs of delivering care to enable people to stay in their own homes. Contracts should meet all legal requirements for employment of staff delivering services.
Unscrupulous agencies looking to cut costs in order to boost profits will inevitably find ways to ensure that wages are kept to the bare minimum.
This is a short-sighted strategy that risks dire consequences. Workers delivering homecare services are increasingly part of the gig economy.
As their employment conditions worsen, they’ll be more likely to leave the sector in search of more secure jobs with a set hourly rate.
This drain of staff will also undermine continuity of support for vulnerable people.
What is needed urgently is for the government to publish its much-delayed green paper on social care funding. This will at least start the process of finding the money that will ensure the service is fit for the 21st century.
It’s essential reforms provide investment in training and ensure homecare staff have a proper career pathway. Their professional development should reflect the fact that looking after people with conditions such as dementia is a highly skilled task.
Each and every one of us wants the best possible care for our loved ones. So it’s time we treated those responsible for delivering that care properly.
That includes paying staff a decent wage so that becoming a carer becomes a career choice. Not just a job.