By the end of the average month social worker Kate Ramsden has contributed more than £50 to work travel costs out of her own pocket. Like many in the social care sector, she is finding that soaring petrol prices – in June it had risen to 118.90p a litre, up from 97p a year ago – mean the car allowances paid by her employer Aberdeenshire Council no longer cover her costs.
Its 40p a mile rate, plus a £24 allowance, gives her £224, while the cost of the petrol she needs to cover the 500 miles she drives during the month is £280. In the past three months, Ramsden estimates her fuel costs have risen by one-third to about £70 a week.
Once workers have done more than 10,000 miles – and many homecare workers regularly do 1,000 miles in a month – the rate drops to just 25p a mile. But working in a rural area abandoning the car in favour of public transport is not feasible.
“It’s just not practical to use public transport in a rural area,” she says. “In some places it is non-existent. We have some vulnerable families living right out in the country and there’s no other way to get to them other than by car.”
Neither is car sharing feasible because people are doing different tasks.
Ramsden, a branch chair of Unison, says many other lower paid workers, such as homecare staff and family support workers, are particularly badly affected by the price hikes.
“I’m really feeling the bite and essentially I’m subsidising my employer,” she says, adding that although her employer is sympathetic to the principle that workers are struggling on the allowances, it hasn’t the money to increase the mileage rates.
Not only is Ramsden, like many, finding it difficult to pay for running her car but insurance and the cost of wear and tear is adding to the expense.
In England, Unison is threatening strikes if councils do not increase mileage rates, which have been overtaken by fuel costs.
Head of local government Heather Wakefield said at last month’s local government conference: “Feelings are running high among our members, who are coping with a real pay cut and price increases. It is only fair that the employers step in to bridge the gap between mileage rates and fuel prices when staff are using their cars for work.”
Ramsden says lower paid workers, such as homecare staff, are starting to turn down work in remote areas because of the cost of travel. Domiciliary care providers are beginning to struggle with the mounting expense. The United Kingdom Care Home Association (UKCHA ) surveyed 80 members last month and initial findings show that, though providers are increasing mileage costs, they are now worrying about losing staff. Their fears seem justified as there are signs that care workers are taking up alternative employment where travel is less costly.
Part of the problem is providers can only charge for contact time spent with the user. So a care worker may find it is simply not financially worthwhile to spend the time and money travelling miles just to make a 15-minute visit to a client.
A spokesperson for UKCHA says: “Fifteen-minute visits are not uncommon, with some councils paying by the minute in an attempt to keep costs down. We are beginning to see providers turning down whole packages of care because their care workers will not be prepared to travel for the pay they’ll earn. We expect this to get worse as the fuel prices increase.
“Care workers will vote with their feet, rather than drive their cars,” he predicts.
Vice chair of the Hampshire Domiciliary Care Association, Amanda Wood says: “This is a major issue. We have had to put our mileage up by a few pence, which doesn’t sound a lot but when you have a lot of carers it’s astronomical.”
She says that local authorities set their prices in April and will not accept any increase in fees. Some councils set three- or even five-year contracts so there is no opportunity to raise fees in response to higher fuel bills.
She says there are now plans to have tighter patches covered by agencies so that carers from one agency are not travelling miles from one visit to another. At the moment it is not uncommon for five agencies to make visits to one tower block.
The UKCHA says there are times when a care worker doesn’t need a car – in small rural villages some workers use bicycles. But this is an ideal scenario. Users of many services would suffer if large numbers of workers decide certain types of work, such as homecare, are not financially viable, and others are forced to organise work patterns to save money on fuel costs.
Direct payments recipients are also being hit, according to Lizzie McLennan, senior policy officer at Help the Aged. She says those using some of the money they receive through direct payments for transport may find they have less money for other care.
The impact of rising fuel costs is being felt across social care. Richard Smith, operations director at recruitment consultancy Beresford Blake Thomas, says that in the past few months clients have been asking about travel and using public transport. “This is now a hot topic and it will get increasingly hotter as the petrol prices increase,” he says. But he adds that clients are not always happy about staff using public transport because it adds to journey times and they are paying by the hour. So the time spent waiting for a bus is time not spent working.
But Smith says he has seen no signs that the social care jobs market is suffering. The rising cost of living generally is putting pressure on families, which means there are no shortage of job candidates, especially in the unqualified part of the market.
“People need money and if some are put off from applying for positions there are others waiting to replace them,” he says.
Social workers may not be leaving their jobs in droves but the costs are creating problems for them. One social worker, based at a north London council, says a car is essential to her job, because using buses would mean losing valuable time to make visits and do paperwork.
The car has other benefits too. In her previous job in a leaving care team she often used her car to transport belongings during house moves. “If anything we are helping the council financially because otherwise they would have to pay taxi bills when people move,” she points out. Of course they are many other instances in which social workers have to use a car, not least if they are taking a child into care.
Another social worker, who works with people who have severe mental illness, says: “Staff are saying ‘we cannot afford to visit our clients. Perhaps we should go in twos to save money?’ In effect this would cut direct contact in half, which would inevitably result in increased deterioration in the mental health of our clients.”
“Most workers are already struggling with paying out for excessive parking charges, and inflation in all other areas, and are getting into debt, to sustain employment.”
➔ Also see http://www.communitycare.co.uk/fuelcosts
➔ To find the cheapest fuel in your area, go to http:// www.petrolprices.com