An English council has discovered that paying children’s social workers a retention bonus payment has made it harder to fill some key social work posts in adults’ services.
It also found that poor facilities for parking was one of the top factors prompting social workers to look elsewhere for work.
A study by Luton council found its reliance on temporary staff was worse in adults’ services – where almost one in three social workers were locum – than children’s services, where just over one in four social workers were locums.
As part of its research, the council surveyed all social workers and found that, on top of well-documented disparities between agency and permanent workers’ hourly rates, there was significant dissatisfaction over the pay offered to adults’ social workers, compared to children’s services, where social workers can gain several thousand pounds more a year because of generous retention bonuses.
Increasing spend on agency staff
“Several agency staff for hard to fill [adult] posts have indicated that they would apply for permanent posts if the retention allowance was better,” said one respondent.
Luton’s spend on agency staff has been increasing over recent years and for 2016-17 it currently takes up 32% of its children’s social work staffing budget and 47% of its staffing budget for adults’ social work services.
The council has set itself a target to reduce this to between 20-25% by the end of 2017-18.
The study also revealed agency social workers cost the council at least £15,000 more each year than employing a permanent social worker.
Seven key ‘push’ factors
Factoring in agency costs and hourly rates set under the East region memorandum of understanding, the group estimated that each agency children’s social worker has been costing the council £55,341, against £40,001 for a permanent staff member. For a senior practitioner, the figures are £63,525 for a locum against £44,932 for a directly employed individual.
But hard cash wasn’t the only issue identified by study, with seven key ‘push’ factors highlighted. While these included perennial sources of pain, such as high caseloads, a sense of being undervalued and being made to hotdesk, it also included poor parking facilities as a major issue for social workers.
A third of survey respondents described parking problems as a key reason why they might leave the council. “LBC [Luton Borough Council] does not appreciate [our] difficult work… and [should] be able to provide appropriate safe parking spaces,” one worker commented.
Accordingly, a task and finish group set up by the council has made a review of parking arrangements for social workers (as well as social care assessors, occupational therapists, community nurses and other related roles) one of its 12 key recommendations. Others included:
- Implementing a new exit survey protocol in order to gain a deeper understanding of why social workers and other social care professionals choose to leave their jobs.
- Undertaking a full review of the benefits packages on offer to social care staff, in order to make Luton a more attractive place to work relative to other authorities in the East region.
- Carrying out another review to gauge the nature of staff dissatisfaction with their working environment.
- Seeking to make the most of the opportunity offered by recent tax changes, which mean agency staff take-home pay will be lower than it used to be, to entice locums into permanent jobs.
The report will be presented to the authority’s executive committee later this month where the recommendations will be considered.
Dr Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said providing split incentives within the same authority, at a time when core salaries had been static for a number of years, forced social workers to focus career decisions around short-term financial benefits rather than the development of skills over a longer term.
She said while she welcomed some of the recommendations proposed by Luton’s task and finish report she hoped they would also focus on longer term solutions.
“We urgently need career pathways in social work with adults to become more attractive and recognised for their specialist, important skill and knowledge base. I hope councils also take a longer term and more thoughtful approach to building an excellent, stable and motivated, well trained workforce of social workers with adults that knows the local population well – and recognise the relationship between what they do and what children’s social workers deal with,” she said.
Heather Wakefield, head of local government for Unison, pointed out that social workers, as part of the local government workforce, had seen pay fall by over 20% since 2010 as well as poorer working conditions, such as having to pay car parking charges and cuts in car allowances.
“Luton’s problems exemplify the downside of relying on agency workers, which is the consequence of the long-term undervaluing of social workers. Pay is only one factor in social workers’ reluctance to commit to permanent employment. A growing admin burden, lack of decent office space and inadequate supervision are also taking their toll.”