With employers facing fierce competition to attract social workers, many are offering a string of incentives to lure the best. But some could be about to end, reports John Charlton
Look through the social worker job adverts in Community Care and you’ll find a surprising array of benefits and supplements on offer. Employers are trying to tempt candidates with perks such as gym membership, childcare vouchers, season ticket loans and “golden hellos” of up to £2,000. And for some overseas staff, one free flight home each year.
Many would argue that a basic average salary of £30,000 is not enough to attract professionals into highly stressful, emotionally draining jobs. As a result, councils such as Surrey are offering add-ons of £1,500 for all social work posts and “frontline” supplements of £1,500 for practitioners in child protection and looked-after children teams.
Hertfordshire Council, meanwhile, offers a £1,000 welcome payment to qualified social workers in some roles, including child protection; an annual retention bonus of £2,000 for child protection workers, payable on the anniversary of the employee’s start date, rising to £3,000 after four years’ continuous service, with smaller sums for people in roles such as fostering and adoption. A council spokesperson says these payments are subject to satisfactory performance and departmental reviews, and are “non-contractual”.
In addition, a London fringe allowance of £555 and up to £6,000 in relocation expenses are available at Hertfordshire.
Experts say the trend towards market supplements lies in the inflexibility of local government pay scales which govern how much local authority employers can offer.
This has led to the growth of perks as a way to top up basic pay, as Louise Tibbert, head of human resources at Hertfordshire, explains: “All our roles are graded and based on the skills, experience and competences and demands of particular roles. Rather than set salaries being allocated, the evaluation process provides each role with a points value which equates to a salary.
“To maintain equal pay rates, it is inappropriate and difficult to increase the basic pay because the salary allocated is correct in terms of the duties and responsibilities for the role. Therefore we opt to provide market forces supplements because these can be reviewed and justification for the payments provided in relation to market trends and pressures.”
In this economic financial climate, when councils in England are being asked to make more than £1bn in efficiency savings this financial year, are benefits at risk?
“They are not part of salary so they can be removed without consultation,” says Ruth Cartwright, joint England manager at the British Association of Social Workers. “In a climate where social workers’ car allowances and annual leave are being cut, recruitment and retention payments are unlikely to survive.”
Kensington and Chelsea Council in London is reviewing its supplements for social workers, including an additional £1,500 for child protection specialists, due to the “tough economic times”, while Surrey Council says it has “no plans to remove these supplements, though the council continues to review them”.
Employers should be wary of withdrawing or cutting contractual benefits. Naylah Hamour, employment law solicitor at Howard Kennedy, says: “If employees have a contractual right to a benefit, unilateral withdrawal of it by an employer can lead to a claim for breach of contract, or even constructive unfair dismissal. If a monetary benefit such as a car allowance is withdrawn, employees may bring employment tribunal claims for unlawful deductions from wages.”
However, many non-salary incentives and benefits are not expensive. Gym membership, shopping and insurance discounts, and financial advice are based on bulk deals between employers and suppliers or specialist third-party providers. Child care vouchers and cycle-to-work benefits are accessed through salary sacrifice schemes.
A report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found 77% of public sector employers do not offer cash incentives to staff, and recommended more use of non-cash incentives. With cuts looming, it appears the only option.
THE INCENTIVES ON OFFER
These qualify for salary sacrifice (see main article) and are therefore fairly cheap to offer and participate in. Participating staff hire a new bike and some kit for, typically, 18 months with an option to buy the goods at the end of the agreement. The employer may need a consumer credit licence or can use a specialist provider. Ruth Cartwright, BASW England manager, says: “A good scheme for cyclists.”
Social workers driving high mileages may get this benefit. The buying power of employers should make it a cheaper option then leasing privately and it may also qualify for salary sacrifice, especially if the vehicle’s emissions are low. Cartwright says: “Not a good deal but may enable the purchase of a car. No more than a decent employer, who expects social workers to have and use cars for work, should be offering.”
The Local Government Pension Scheme is the main benefit for local authority social workers. It pays a percentage of final salary as a pension with each year counting as one-60th of that amount. Staff pay about 6% of pensionable pay while employers pay about 20%. Defined contribution schemes are based on the value of a pension pot. Not as good as final salary schemes but tax efficient and may qualify for salary sacrifice. Cartwright says: “Local authorities have to ensure they at least retain the pension schemes to compensate for the disadvantages of working in local government.”
Research by Best Companies in 2009 said 96% of public sector employers offered this, while 84% allowed compressed hours – cramming a 35-hour working week into four days. Cartwright says: this could be attractive if implemented, but warns: “Flexi is used as a cop-out by employers when workers complain about unrealistic workloads. If someone is accumulating a lot of flex, their workload should be cut.”
Typically, employers will provide post-qualifying (PQ) award training for social workers as well as other learning and development schemes. Some authorities link PQ awards to career progression and some, for example Hertfordshire Council, give paid time off for study. Cartwright says: “Attractive but, unfortunately, training is in decline as budgets are cut.”
Offered by most public sector employers, this is a cost-effective benefit because of salary sacrifice. Only of interest to parents who have children aged 15 or younger. Those who sign up receive vouchers which they use to pay vetted providers of childcare. Cartwright says: “Attractive, but all good employers offer these.”
Unpaid leave agreement – usually for a few months – which allows the employee to return to their old job. If the career break is unpaid, no pension contributions will be made and employees will stay on the same incremental point. Best Companies research found 46% of public sector employers offer them. Cartwright says: “Attractive, especially if paid sabbaticals are on offer.”
Best Companies research said 70% of public sector employers offer this – usually at council-run sports sites. Discounts will typically range from 20% upwards off face value. Cartwright says: “This is neither here nor there for most social workers. It is not going to be a deal maker and make you decide to take one job over another.”
This benefit gives employees access to counselling, usually by phone, on issues such as stress and financial difficulties. It’s cheap to offer: about £7 per capita per year for large employers, according to the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association. Cartwright says: “Not a deal maker but good practice. Overworked social workers need support.”
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This article is published in the 4 November 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Say goodbye to golden hellos”