Going Solo

There are many benefits for professionals in working for agencies but there are downsides too, reports Sally Gillen

One word springs to mind when thinking about the appeal of agency social work: money. Locums often earn thousands of pounds a year more than permanent staff and for those who set up as a limited company there are tax benefits.

They can pay themselves a small part of their salary – probably at minimum wage – from which income tax is deducted. The rest of their income then becomes a dividend, on which corporation tax  s paid. Although it means losing four weeks’ statutory holiday entitlement and sick pay, working as a limited company can increase earnings by up to 20 per cent.

Better pay is undoubtedly the main reason to abandon the relative security of a permanent post to join an agency, but there are other advantages too.

For Hugh McDaid, a social worker with more than 30 years’ experience who has worked as a locum at Hackney Council for the past few months, the variety and flexibility agency work offers is attractive. “I have enjoyed the opportunity to do other types of work, including hospital social work, which is something I never would have considered,” he says.

It also gives him the flexibility to combine his two-day-aweek job at Hackney with work for an independent fostering agency.

Professional freedom is fast becoming a remote concept to many permanent staff. People working in stressful environments, often for many years, may feel trapped and therefore tempted by the relative autonomy agency work offers.

British Association of Social Workers professional officer Nushra Mapstone says: “There is a sense that you can step back and feel ‘you [the local authority] don’t completely own me and pull the strings’.”

Independent social workers, like agency staff, enjoy the benefits of higher pay and greater autonomy, but also face the pressure of finding their own work.

McDaid, who has also worked independently, did not have that problem. His experience, record and, importantly, contacts meant work was plentiful.

But he did encounter other difficulties. Getting his fee from some councils could be like “getting blood out of a stone”, he says, adding he is still waiting to be paid for work he completed three months ago.

Registering with an agency may pay less than going it alone, but it means you can leave the hassle of chasing payment to someone else.

But do generous pay and flexibility compensate for the impact on holiday entitlement, sick pay and pensions, all of which can all be adversely affected by working as a locum?

Legally, temporary workers are entitled to four weeks’ holiday, but some agencies get round that by increasing the hourly rate they pay to include holiday. And, after years of paying into a local authority pension scheme, arranging a private one may not appeal.

But social workers at the beginning of their careers may not see pensions as a pressing concern, and the promise of higher earnings may appeal to former students with large debts.

Newly qualified social workers are increasingly targeted by agencies, which are a regular fixture at careers fairs, offering incentives such as golden hellos, worth hundreds of pounds. But high pay rates will be little  compensation if workers find themselves thrown into work they are too inexperienced to do, with little support from colleagues.

Mapstone says: “I know people who have been employed by agencies that have not matched their skills to jobs so they have been given unsuitable work. If a newly qualified social worker is put in that position they may not have the confidence to speak up, which could be catastrophic for services users and for them professionally.”

Some agencies fail to develop their workers, leaving them marooned at the same level with little hope of promotion. Importantly, given the General Social Care Council’s registration requirement that 90 hours of post-qualifying learning must be undertaken over three years, working at an agency could mean you may have to pay for your own training.

McDaid admits that training is a concern because, although some councils are happy to release agency workers to undertake training, others are not. Investing in somebody who may soon leave, they argue, is pointless. Many believe that the responsibility for training lies with the agency.

Amicus Recruit is among agencies offering a training scheme as part of its package. Regional manager Pat Stewart says: “Training and development are critical. There is no reason why somebody cannot progress while they are with an agency. From our point of view it is not just a case of filling jobs.”

Nonetheless, she is clear that workers must take responsibility for their own development. Agencies can provide opportunities, such as training outside work hours, but it is up to workers to invest the time.

There are other, trickier issues locums sometimes face, namely resentment from permanent, less well-paid, staff.

Sharon Harper (see The pay is great, but the insecurity is always there) says: “Sometimes, fulltime staff can be quite negative towards agency workers because they are earning more, which can make morale low.

“It wasn’t my experience but I have friends doing locum work and they haven’t been invited to after-work drinks. You could be sitting next to someone and earning double their money.”

McDaid agrees, but adds: “There tends to be more resentment towards newly qualified social workers who go straight into agencies. You may have someone with 10 or 15 years’ experience who is being paid less than an agency worker.”

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