How councils can work with providers to improve conditions for home care staff

Southwark council has agreed in principle to Unison’s ethical home care charter and is working with local providers to find out how they could raise pay and conditions for this group of staff.

So often when the subject of pay and conditions for home care workers is raised, providers, councils and central government officers go on the offensive, blaming each other for a lack of funding, support and proper management.

The latest government attempt to stamp out non-compliance with the national minimum wage in the care sector – primarily due to the use of zero hours contracts and the non-payment of travel time – has seen ministers threaten providers with the possibility of imposing fines. Yet providers are struggling with squeezed budgets as a direct result of government cuts to local authorities. And so the cycle of poor pay continues.

However, some local authorities and providers are trying a different approach: working together. Southwark council in London, for example, has agreed in principle to Unison’s ethical home care charter and is working with local providers to raise employment standards for home care staff. The charter sets out a number of principles, including introducing the London Living Wage for this group of employees and eradicating the use of zero hours contracts, so home care workers are incentivised to spend more than 15 minutes with each service user. The council is carrying out feasability studies to establish whether it can commit to delivering these goals.

Catherine McDonald, Southwark’s cabinet member for adult social care and health, says the council has been talking to providers about this for a while now and she is confident they will be able to make progress. “We have a good relationship with providers; it’s not us and them,” she explains.

Southwark will introduce the London Living Wage for home care workers this summer, she confirms. It is also working with providers to ensure all visits are at least half an hour long and that a worker is allocated to each service user, to provide them with greater continuity of care. “The fact we are bringing in the London Living Wage for private sector providers in these tough economic circumstances shows it can be done,” says McDonald. But she adds that local authorities and providers can only do so much: “Budgets are being squeezed. We will do what we can as a council, but there needs to be national action around this. The government needs to ensure funding for adult social care as needs increase.”

Eradicating zero hours contracts

Caroline Firmin has been a home care worker in Southwark for 26 years. Back when she started out, she was employed by the council with set hours, but since then her job has moved into the private sector and she and her colleagues have faced reduced holiday and sick leave entitlements, pay cuts and less security of hours.

The move saw her put on a zero hours contract, which was particularly hard. “It’s very difficult because you don’t know from one week to the next how many hours you will do,” she says. “Not only does it have an effect on the carer, it has an effect on the client.

“If I go to work on Monday and they give me two hours in the morning that start at seven and finish at nine, my next job might not be until one o’clock in the afternoon and might be only a half hour lunch job. If you don’t live locally it’s not worth going home and back because you’ve spent more money in bus fares. So what a lot of home carers do is say I’m not going to do Mrs A at one o’clock so they’ve got to find another carer and there’s no consistency for the client.”

The instability of income is, she adds, a constant struggle. “You don’t make ends meet,” she says. “Some carers are better off signing on than working on zero hours contracts.”

Firmin feels the situation would be much better if the council ran the service itself. “I’d like Southwark council to take it back in house and give better terms and conditions to the carers,” she says. “That would mean better quality care for the clients because carers would have guaranteed hours and would know whether they could live on the money and that would give the client the continuity of the same person turning up.”

Unfortunately, bringing services in-house can be expensive. And Southwark council argues that there is no evidence to suggest it would automatically improve services. “Up and down the country there are external services offering excellent care and in-house ones offering poor care,” a spokesperson says. “What we are looking for is the balance that gets the right service provider offering the best service to users, but can also offer the right terms and conditions to staff to maintain that quality and commitment.”

On one thing though, home care workers, Unison and the council agree: zero hours contracts are a large part of the problem. “I understand the concerns people have around zero hours contracts and I do want to work towards eliminating the use of those,” says McDonald. “We’ve set up a working group to look at this, which will include input from Unison and other stakeholders. It is due to report back in November.”

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