Personal assistants have little back up when it comes to disputes with their employers, writes Andrew Mickel
The number of personal assistants is forecast to rise from 114,000 in 2006 to 646,000 in 2025. Yet, despite their growing number, they remain an elusive part of the social care workforce. There is neither a national representative body for personal assistants, nor national guidelines on how they should be found and employed by users of direct payments and individual budgets.
Although public sector union Unison says some of its members are personal assistants, it doesn’t know how many because most of those who are perform the role as a second job.
Not having these systems and structures in place would create problems in any workforce. But PAs are in a particularly poor position: many of their employers are taking on such responsibilities for the first time and, without adequate support, many are unaware of the complexities of employment law.
Although some areas have good advocacy organisations to support new employers, most do not.
Ignorant of rights
The problem of both employers and employees not knowing their rights and responsibilities has become so severe that, in May, the Low Pay Commission flagged the minimum wage rights of PAs as needing protection by the government.
This is supported by findings in 2007 by Janet Leece, an honorary researcher at Staffordshire University who compared the pay and conditions of home care staff and personal assistants. The personal assistants were typically paid £5.16 an hour compared with £6.14 an hour for home care staff, and one PA was working for £2.77 an hour – a rate substantially below the £4.85 minimum wage at the time.
These figures were calculated according to the number of hours worked by PAs. Many do unpaid overtime outside their formal hours, lowering their average hourly pay. The problem is exacerbated by a poor understanding of other statutory benefits alongside the basic wage.
“The money from the council included holiday and sickness pay, but a number of PAs were going to work without knowing they were entitled,” says Leece. That money was not always being passed on to the employee, and it was not clear where the money ended up going. “The council said they had told the direct payment users they had to pay the money, and that they had handed over information. Users either hadn’t received that information or didn’t understand it,” says Leece.
Even for an employer who knows and meets the law on paying the minimum wage, the uniquely close working relationship of a PA and their employer creates problems in itself, says Helga Pile, national officer for Unison. “What we do know is that we are getting more anecdotal evidence through about PAs which is very difficult,” says Pile.
“The issues are standard, such as working overtime or dismissal. But the difference is that when you’re working in an organisation there’s an HR person or a manager you can talk to. That’s not the case with this.”
Mandy Frew (pictured above) is one of the lucky PAs. Her employer of 16 years, Suselle Boffey, is a former social worker with whom she has a good working relationship. “I am not sure what I would do if I wasn’t working for someone with such good communication skills, who is able to sit down and listen to my views,” says Frew. “And Suselle would be happy to bring in a third party if need be.”
Were problems to arise with her employment conditions, however, Frew has no obvious organisation to turn to. Like most PAs, she isn’t a member of a union. She suggests she would probably turn to a lawyer for advice if the worst happened – a costly move that would escalate what might be only a minor problem.
Finding good staff
Boffey has used employed assistants since 1991, and she has employed them to work 24 hours a day for her since 2002. “It’s not easy to find good staff but over the past six years my staffing has been pretty stable,” she says. “But PAs, unless they’re a member of a union, don’t have an easy route to information. That has to come from me.”
In Scotland, an organisation set up to ensure that employers know their rights and responsibilities has been set up to try to improve the situation for both sides. The Scottish Personal Assistants Employers Network (Spaen) delivers its services both directly to individuals and organisations so isn’t sure how many PA employers it is working with, but estimates it helps roughly half of the 1,500-1,800 people in Scotland using direct payments and individual budgets.
Spaen training officer Violet Keenan says she has not encountered an example of a council failing to provide enough money. A more common issue, she says, is an employer not understanding the money that has been calculated and allocated to them.
“There’s a misunderstanding that when a council says it will pay £36 for a 10-hour sleepover shift then you can’t just pay that,” Keenan says. “You have to pay the minimum wage. If the same person is paying £7.50 an hour day rate then you would have to make the rate less for the day [and put the wages into the sleepover shifts].”
The hidden part of this employment equation is the council. Typically, it will provide cash to users to employ a PA. But when situations outside that standard arrangement arise which require more money, such as maternity leave or redundancy, who should be stumping up that contingency cash is open to question.
Fudging the issue
Pile says this area has been fudged by many councils: “You have this situation where a third party determines how well or badly an employer can treat their workers. One of our branches reported a case where they couldn’t recover the award [given to an employee in an industrial tribunal following a dispute] because the individual against whom it was made just didn’t pay, and it was difficult to chase them for the money.”
With local authorities failing to take responsibility for supporting these new working relationships, there is a growing need for PAs to find a different way to vocalise and support their own needs.
A new model may be emerging in Scotland, where Spaen and Unison are planning a mediation service to prevent disputes ending up at Acas. The Scottish government has also started a research project looking at the relationship. For the rest of the UK, however, the fortunes of personal assistants look set to remain at the mercy of their employers’ awareness and good nature for some time.
Case study: Sue Cawston, personal assistant
Julia Winter, an individual budget holder in Essex, has employed PAs since 1998, and employed Sue Cawston since 2000. Essex Council has a contract with independent living organisation ILA Essex to help with contracts and rates. Winter says that travelling around the country as part of her job for charity In Control – which set up the self-directed support system – has shown how effective the county’s systems are when used with an employer who knows what they are doing.
But even with a good ILO, there is little support for her PAs, says Cawston: “I did go on the internet and there are a few forums, but that’s generally just people moaning. Julia has suggested I could go to ILA Essex, but it’s not exclusively for us – people on direct payments go there too.
“You don’t often get to meet other PAs so it would be good to have a situation where you could just pick up the phone and someone would know the laws or a bit of guidance.”
The fact that PAs often do not meet other PAs, along with the fact they are a relatively new part of the workforce whose role is ill-defined, has made it difficult to set up an organisation.
“We need to do a hell of a lot more work [to support PAs],” says Winter. “We did try to set up a PA support group in Essex, but there were neither the facilities nor the money to get it off the ground.”
This article is published in the 9 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Nothing personal