Agency social workers have had good reason to reassess their working arrangements over the past year or so.
As revealed by Community Care research into the state of agency social work in the wake of April 2017’s ‘IR35’ changes to tax legislation, most who’ve stuck with local authority work have taken a big hit in the pocket.
Of more than 250 social workers who participated in a survey we ran in the early summer, or in interviews with 20 of our respondents, almost all reported being less well off than they used to. The changes forced most agency workers to pay tax at a level at least as high as permanent colleagues, as well as removing their ability to claim expenses such as travel to and from work.
Find out more about how last year’s IR35 tax legislation changes have affected the workforce among social work employers, and how agency social workers are faring.
Yet in June, 14 months on from the changes, three-quarters of those who had been agency workers in early 2017 were still agency workers. Meanwhile only about one in 10 of all the social workers who contacted us had made a move back into permanent local authority employment. A handful, in fact, had gone the other way.
Here we share some of their stories, illuminating the choices people make around an ever-controversial facet of social work practice.
‘I would never go back’
Kirsty*, an adults’ social worker who’s worked via agencies for the past few years, gave responses that perhaps best summed up the majority of people we were in touch with.
“I’m a single mum with kids at uni,” she says of her original motivation for going agency. “I’ve got to think about my income and how I can do my job to the best of my ability, without having to work on the side in a pub as well.”
For social workers like Kirsty who operated a limited company, enabling them to lower their tax liabilities, that financial impetus has been greatly reduced in the wake of the legislative changes.
But when asked about her decision to stay as an agency worker, Kirsty says she would “never go back” to a permanent role.
I like the flexibility agency work gives me, and in the job we do you can get staid [if you stay in one place].
In common with other long-term agency workers, Kirsty expresses pride in having worked around good councils and bad, developing fire-fighting skills that enable her to go into chaotic situations and help turn things around, as a big motivating factor. Many have invested significant sums of their own cash into their personal development too.
“You experience good practice, and can go elsewhere and say, ‘Why not try this?’ Kirsty says. “It’s the same with any job – when you’ve crossed the market you see good and bad, and you use the good and discard the bad.”
‘You’re left with a lack of security’
For others though, such as Jack, a children’s team manager, the “huge unplanned change in finance” forced him to reassess his situation and move back to permanent work.
Jack has teenage children and used to commute hundreds of miles for jobs, claiming travel and accommodation costs as expenses incurred by his limited company. He says he loved both the freedom his arrangements gave him, and – like Kirsty – the feeling of being able to go into authorities where morale was low and help turn things around.
“[But] it started to feel untenable,” he says.
The benefit was chipped away and you’re just left with a lack of security and no pension.
Several other experienced social workers express similar reluctance about returning to permanent employment.
Rowan, an adults’ practitioner, had been working with a partner doing training and consultancy work for local authorities – which, given its lack of regular hours, and other clear-cut distinctions from jobs fulfilled by employees, would still fall outside of IR35.
But because he was still balancing this with ordinary agency work as he and his partner built their business, the tax changes came at the worst possible time, he says. To save money, he is now looking at moving house for a local authority job.
“I understand the government’s motivations, but they have effectively quenched our entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “If we’d had a couple more years, we’d probably have got to the position of paying far more in corporation tax than we will in income tax via permanent jobs.”
Better pay, better parking privileges
A handful of mostly younger practitioners struck a more positive note about getting back into permanent jobs.
Pat, a children’s social worker, who’s taken roles at five authorities in his region, explains he’s ended up at a supportive council, willing to offer significant development opportunities as well as paying a higher salary than most of its neighbours. He hasn’t made the jump back to permanency yet, but the offer is on the table and he believes he will take it up soon.
If everyone [in the region] paid that rate, I think you’d see a massive reduction in agency staff. But some local authorities – usually not good ones – their bands are [much lower].
“It’s no wonder [some of these councils] have got lots of agency workers, because no one will apply for the permanent jobs – it’s a shame,” Pat adds.
Meanwhile Scott, another children’s practitioner, says that while he was still “better off, though not by a lot” post-IR35, the pros and cons of agency work simply no longer stacked up as they used to.
“For a £400 a month [take-home] pay cut I get annual leave whenever I want, benefits like sick pay – plus other bits, like [my employer] doesn’t provide parking for agency workers,” he says, referencing one of social workers’ workplace bugbears.
“In [my town] you can hop from one free car park to another but that gets pretty boring, when you’re trying to judge it around visits.”
‘I never had a limited company so don’t miss the money’
While the opportunities to make extra money and work flexibly all over the country are not what they were 18 months ago, it’s clear agency work remains an appealing option for some permanent staffers.
Marissa is one of a small group of social workers we speak to who made the switch to agency after the IR35 changes had already taken effect. While some social workers tell us they have recently gone agency in order to escape from negative work environments or bullying, she says she simply wanted more control over her options.
Before being a social worker she was employed in a sector that meant she had no illusions about the incentives being offered by ‘too good to be true’ umbrella companies.
“I’ve got a superb manager and a good rate of pay,” she says. “My colleague [complains about being] £300 a week worse off but I never worked via a limited company so I don’t miss the money.”