‘Care staff are working 80 hour weeks and still struggling to live’

A care worker reflects on why adequate pay, training and support are needed for the adult social care workforce

Photo: m.a.r.c./Flickr

I came into care work a naïve 18-year-old who thought she could support older and disabled people to live active, interesting lives. But thrown in at the deep end, I realised perhaps it wasn’t going to be that easy.

My first job was in a nursing home where all of the residents had a complex mix of physical disabilities and advanced dementia. I thought I’d got the job because I was caring, compassionate and willing to learn – but actually I think it’s because I was cheap labour.

Most of the staff were equally inexperienced as I and as we were young, our employer only had to pay us £2.85 per hour. The ensuing mayhem made me want to stay and protect these people whereas many others simply left.

‘Choice again forgotten’

We were managed by an older-style matron who ruled with a rod of iron. Residents had to be up, dressed and eating breakfast by 8am, regardless of whether they wanted to be or not. All had to be back in bed again by 8pm, choice again forgotten.

I was once disciplined and given a warning after giving a resident a cheese sandwich. The lady had refused Sunday lunch and asked for a cheese sandwich, so I made her one. Following that incident I was actually barred from the kitchen.

Institutional was the only way I can possibly describe it. I never thought it was right and I knew there must be a better way.

‘Better opportunities’

I knew if I worked for the local authority my pay would improve and I would be given better opportunities – so I decided to move on. I was lucky enough to get the first job I went for, which involved supporting people in their own homes following discharge from hospital.

With the local authority, I entered a whole new world of fantastic training, good pay and a supportive management team. I had opportunities to progress and I loved the choice and independence we were able to provide.

‘Out there alone’

After a career break I tried to return to council work but it was apparent from the off that there were very few jobs left, so I started a new position at a private homecare provider.

Training was two hours in a room ticking boxes and the next day I was out there alone, providing care to a very unstable client with dementia. Fortunately I was able to rely on the good training I’d had previously, but I did wonder how others would have coped.

All of the things I’d witnessed in my first job and assumed had been stopped were now seeping into the home care workforce. Little or no choice. Frantic rushed calls with no opportunity to engage in conversation. Inexperienced, unsupported staff working for a pittance.

I thought things had improved but care was becoming about making huge profits not quality. The distinction for me was stark; I had lived in a bubble of perfection in my previous home care role and wrongly assumed it would be the same in the private sector.

Staff turnover was huge and regardless of people’s ability to care, it seemed that keeping the numbers up was just too important to worry about anything else.

‘It’s not rocket science’

But really none of this is rocket science. As my mother always used to say ‘if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’. With budgets cut to the bone, huge private equity firms have taken control of the home care sector and driven the cost down to completely unattainable levels.

Staff are working 60 to 80 hours a week but they are still struggling to live. We need improved training, we need decent minimum pricing standards and we need sufficient funding in the system.

Only when we have a valued, respected and adequately paid workforce can we ensure vulnerable older people are protected in the one place they should feel safe – their homes.

That’s why people should join UNISON’s campaign to improve our home care service across the UK and visit www.savecarenow.org.uk


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14 Responses to ‘Care staff are working 80 hour weeks and still struggling to live’

  1. Noreen April 7, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    the article is narrow in outlook. Private care homes are paid a much lower weekly fee than Local Authority Homes. Many private providers give extensive training under difficult circumstances & have no option to pay lower wages. Local Authorities pay their own Homes much higher weekly fees, plus do not accept the most difficult type of resident. I bet if it were possible to work out, that pro-rata, private providers pay as much or more for training & wages. Private sector carers give as high a standard of service.

    • Mike April 8, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

      Sadly not the case Noreen – as a commissioner of these services the poor outnumber the good. Long hours, poor conditions, lack of supervision, inherent bad practice handed down from ‘old hands’, It’s a broad brush – but put simply – low pay – no stay, and those that are good at what they do will move on. Rely on family if you can or have the option – dom care is in/out in no time, and very few practitioners are truly person centred.

      • Gerald April 8, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

        If you are a Commisioner as you say,can you explain how Mid Staffs etc are still allowed to operate with acknoledge bad record of care they obviously have, Winterbourne in the Private Sector was dealt with completely differently with far less problems, would you also like to explain the disparety of payments made for Care of the Elderly in the Private and Public Sectors (NHS Trusts getting as much as 300% more for similar services)

    • Gerald April 8, 2015 at 5:48 pm #

      Totally agree Noreen, I have been in this business over thirty years and our local Council have driven down the fees over all this time by continually ignoring their own officers and giving below “the cost of living” increases recommended. When we approached this problem in 1998 the leader of the council told to quite plainly it was their intention to bankcrupt the private sector as they had a policy of Public Sector Only.In spite of this , blantly political statement, and due to the Public themselves supporting us with top ups etc , the Private Sector is still up and running, surely this clearly indicates that our service is not as bad as the author of this article and such bodies as the BBC (Panorama) and Unison would have us believe. I honestly believe that ,this obviously biased and bigotted article is all part of an orchestrated smere capaign which has been going on for decades now, Why do doesn’t the BBC and Unison look into the massive problems of “Bad Care” in the Public Sector (Mid Staffs, Leed etc etc ) Child Care all over the place.
      All I can say to the Private Sector care workers is to take hart from our clients, the General Public, when offered a choice they will generally choose the Private Sector, as far as I am concerned they are the people that matter, Not others with obviously political agendas .

  2. sue wallace April 7, 2015 at 9:50 pm #

    I find the comment “you pay peanuts you get monkeys” quite demoralising, I am a carer in the community and I absolutely love my job, I see people of all different guises and even though I say it myself the people I go to see all love me to bits, I may not earn a lot of money but I do take time to talk to my service users,I have a saying that goes ” If I leave you with a smile on your face I’ve done my job” When I became a carer I knew the pay wasn’t brilliant but my service users more than make up for that with the praise and love the bestow upon me. One of my ladies said to me the other day” You don’t get paid enough for all the work you do and the time you spend with me, your an angel from heaven”, my reply was, ” the words you have just spoken to me mean so much more than money” So although I don’t earn oodles of money I don’t class myself as a monkey.

  3. Paul Sear April 8, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

    When more and more is required by the Council, CQC, Skills for care for the same money only one thing will go down hill and that is care. Sadly some providers think giving someone a dvd is training.

    • Gerald April 8, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

      Dear Paul,

      It is the General Public who are our clients , over 450 thousand can’t all be wrong, believe in yourself people out there are supporting us, they learnt not to believe Blairite spin doctors years ago.

  4. Ian April 8, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

    Many staff will not recognise themselves as monkeys given their commitment to care, however many are not committed and feel unjustly rewarded for their time……..if we pay an adequate rate that reflects the role then those who offer a good service are tightly rewarded and those who don’t can be weeded out. The care sector had long been neglected and zero hour contracts took advantage of week unions, burned out staff and a client group who have little political clout. Time for change…..Time for those in the care sector to become politically aware.

  5. Gurj April 9, 2015 at 10:06 am #

    I actually fully agree with the comment, that if you actually pay a poorer wage you will get a lower grade of applicant applying for jobs. However you still get caring staff such as Sue who enjoy their jobs and are good at them.

    Nevertheless the care sector is a turbulent environment where a lot of things are covered up or swept away. Whoever decides to comment on this may say this is sweeping statement but I know it to be factual. Especially from holding many poisons within the health and social care sector, all the up to management,

    I agree that workers need to be valued as I fell into the same trap where I found myself not respected, not valued, underpaid and working 60 hours a week plus. That was for a big private Midlands based provider and I was still not able to make end meet!!!

    However there are many other dynamics into play here from apart from what has been already said, such as racism, prejudices and female dominated workforces. These also bring services into disrepute which adds to the chaos which is already ensuing.

  6. Yvonne Bon if as April 9, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

    Life is far more complex than a private bad, public good generalisation. Or the other way round. Most publicly funded home care is down to a price, as councils are strapped for cash. If you can pay the right price you can get very good care from a private provider. If I were to set up a care agency I would for top of the market, not be dependent on council work, charge high rates to self funders and pay good wages for good staff. Some council run services were pretty good, but I can remember crappy council care homes that had generous funding.

    As for peanuts and monkeys, there are some great people working for terrible pay but by and large people can only be martyrs for so long.

  7. Chris Sterry April 10, 2015 at 12:53 am #

    Yes pay in the care sector is far from good, but surely if you are being employed you should have pride in your job and show respect for your clients. Being proud and showing respect are not down to the level of pay, but to the nature of the respected persons.

    If this is not in their nature, no matter how much they are paid will make any difference.

    To provide care is an important and responsible job and the rate of pay should reflect this.

  8. Kay April 10, 2015 at 8:38 am #

    I have just left support work after nearly thirty years.I loved my job even though the pay was very poor.However,I wasn’t the main breadwinner in my household.Not everyone is so fortunate – goodwill doesn’t pay the bills.

  9. Michelle April 12, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

    I have worked for public sector and had staff paid good money and terms and conditions. Can I say some of them you would not have paid in Peanuts. However I now work in the private sector where staff are on lower pay and provide very good care. So the statement pay peanuts get monkeys is not always right.

  10. Avril Broadley April 19, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

    New to the world of care provision I have nothing but admiration for the carers who look after my mother in a private care home. It seems incredible to me that these men and women work 12 hour shifts on low pay. I cannot imagine how they juggle their own families and lives around these working conditions. But in return for this I have only witnessed a level of kindness and compassion that could not easily be attributed to monkeys. Its time we valued care workers and took a closer look at different care models to ensure we value and protect our older generation.