For many elderly and disabled people, care workers provide the essential help that enables them to live independently in their homes. Yet there is increasing evidence that care workers are losing out financially as a funding crisis threatens to engulf social care.
The care sector is a growing industry. Care workers help people with their basic needs, and this can cover everything from cooking meals and making beds to personal care. They are often employed by agencies that have council contracts, but a squeeze on local government funding has led to a reduction in the amount of money available. As a result operating margins of social care providers have narrowed, and care workers’ rates of pay have been stripped to the bone.
To make things worse, care workers are paid only for the time actually spent with each client, not for their travelling time between visits. This means that hourly wage rates are often dragged below the legal minimum.
“Jean”, a care worker in a northern town, is typical of many. A recent Guardian feature describes how in one day she made 23 house calls, drove 20 miles between appointments and made £64.80 before tax.
“I leave home at half six,” she says, “And I’ll probably get home at about seven and I’ll get about £270 a week. The clients are lovely and sometimes you go out of your way to do more for them, but it’s hard because there’s no time to get from one place to the next.”
“Jean” is on a zero-hours contract and fears losing work if her employer is dissatisfied with her performance. Zero-hours contracts compound the problem. Recently released data from the Office of National Statistics indicates that between April and June this year, around 113,000 of the 769,000 workers who provide home care to vulnerable people or were employed in care homes were on contracts with no guaranteed hours. This is a jump in the past year alone from 1 in 10 care workers to 1 in 7.
Having no guaranteed hours of work can increase, or drastically reduce, a wage packet, making it difficult for workers to budget for household expenses, or to take on a mortgage.
Minimal rates of pay for care workers have, unsurprisingly, angered trade unions. Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison, said, “The abuse of minimum wage laws is endemic across the homecare sector because the non-payment of travel time drags already low wages below legal minimums. HMRC is meant to ensure all employers comply with the law, but is failing to do so.”
The labour MP Paul Blomfield has raised the issue of care workers’ wages in parliament. He said that he believed the practice of not paying workers for the time taken to travel between visits was widespread. He said he knew of one worker who was “working for eight hours or so, but being paid only for four hours”.
Workers who are paid less than the legal minimum – currently £7.20 per hour for those aged over 25 – can complain to ACAS, who will take their case to HMRC for investigation.