Experienced care staff earn just 6p an hour more than those new to the role, Skills for Care has revealed.
The figure, down from between 26p and 37p before 2017, reflects providers’ inability to maintain pay differentials between staff while delivering statutory rises in the national living wage.
The finding comes in Skills for Care’s annual report on the state of the adult social care workforce, which laid bare the sector’s growing recruitment problems.
It found that vacancies, which had fallen during the pandemic, were now rising, while the number of jobs in the sector was falling, indicating that employers were struggling to find the right people for vacant roles.
The report also highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the workforce, with sickness absence almost doubling in 2020-21, and some employers reporting rising levels of burnout among care workers and registered managers.
Meanwhile, the number of people coming to the UK to work in adult social care has fallen significantly, the likely result of tightened post-Brexit immigration rules and Covid travel restrictions.
Lack of pay progression
Average hourly pay for care staff in the independent sector grew by 5.3% in real terms, to £9.01 an hour, in 2020-21, much faster than the 1.8% average annual rate from 2012-2020. This was on the back of a 6.2% cash rise in the national living wage (NLW), to £8.72 an hour, in April 2020.
However, while wages for the lowest-paid tenth of care workers rose by 20.1% from 2016-21, those of the top tenth increased by just 8.5%.
This meant that, in 2020-21, care workers with more than five years’ experience were paid just 6p an hour more than those with less than one year’s experience, down from between 26p and 37p prior to 2017 and 12p in 2019-20.
The report said this showed the challenge of “rewarding experienced workers and those with greater responsibilities” while delivering on rises in the NLW.
As in last year’s report, the latest study showed how care worker wages had fallen behind those of other low-paid jobs. The £9.01 average was below those for cleaners and domestics (£9.07) and sales and retail assistants (£9.22); both roles were paid less than care staff in 2012-13.
Vacancies rising again
The vacancy rate across adult social care fell for the second consecutive year, to 6.8%, in 2020-21, down by 0.4 percentage points on the year before.
Skills for Care said this could be due to the impact of there being fewer jobs available in the rest of the economy during the first phase of the pandemic.
However, since April 2021, the vacancy rate across the sector has risen, from 6.2% to 8.2% in August 2021, above pre-pandemic levels.
Over a similar period – March to August 2021 – the number of filled jobs in the sector declined, by 1.8%, following year-on-year increases driven by the rising demand for care.
“The increase in the vacancy rate at the same time as jobs (filled posts) decreasing points towards a supply and demand mismatch, with employers unable to find the staff they need to meet the demand for services,” the report found.
Mandatory vaccination impact
The fall in the number of filled jobs since March was greater in the care home sector (2.2%) than in home care (0.8%).
The report pointed out that it coincided with the announcement of the policy of mandatory Covid-19 vaccination for care home staff.
Skills for Care said “this may be putting some people off joining the sector and contributing to others deciding to leave”.
“Market intelligence gathered from employers suggests that this is already the case for some staff who are already leaving to take up roles in the NHS or other sectors where vaccination is not required,” the report added.
The government has estimated that the policy, which comes into force next month, will cost the sector 40,000 staff.
Sickness absence doubles
The report also set out the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellbeing of social care staff, with sickness absence almost doubling from 5.1 to 9.5 days on average, from 2019-20 to 2020-21. This was due to both illness and people having to self-isolate or be unable to work for other reasons, including childcare issues.
Since August, fully vaccinated people have not had to self-isolate if they were the contact of a positive Covid-19 case so this may result in reduced sickness absence, the report suggested.
However, it also said that some employers had reported their staff and registered managers being at risk of burnout due to the pandemic, with sickness levels likely to be a contributory factor.
Besides pay, mandatory vaccination and the impact of Covid-19, the report also highlighted the reduced supply of overseas staff into the sector, on the back of Covid restrictions and the tightening of immigration policy post-Brexit.
Reduced numbers of overseas staff
Since January, when free movement from the European Union, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, it has not been possible for people to come to the country to take up roles as care workers.
As a result, from January to April 2021, just 1.8% of new starters in adult social care were from overseas, compared with 5.2% in the same period in 2019.
Skills for Care chief executive officer Oonagh Smyth said the report was “a stark reminder that our recruitment challenges continue, and to help tackle that we need to properly reward and value care workers for their high skill levels and dedication”.
The government is due to publish a white paper on adult social care later this year, in which it has pledged to address workforce pressures, and Smyth said that Skills for Care “[looked] forward to seeing the measures contained”.
Pay rise required
In its response, UNISON said the simple solution was a pay rise for staff, which ministers had “within their gift to sort”.
“With the minimum wage the norm in care, it’s no wonder workers are leaving in droves for more lucrative, less stressful jobs elsewhere,” said senior national officer for care Gavin Edwards.
“This care staffing emergency could be ended almost overnight if the real living wage [currently £10.85 in London and £9.50 elsewhere] became the base rate across the entire workforce. Experienced staff would be more likely to stay, new recruits easier to attract and decent care available to all who need help.”
Think-tank the Nuffield Trust cited the £500m that the government had planned to invest in supporting the social care workforce, including in relation to wellbeing, from April 2022 to March 2025, but said action was needed immediately.
“Now more than ever, it’s crucial that measures to support staff health and wellbeing over winter are adequately resourced,” said researcher Nina Hemmings.
Need to protect workforce
She added that the plan to introduce an £86,000 cap on care costs and make the current means-test more generous, from October 2023, had “the potential to be positive”, they “won’t secure any more help for anybody unless we keep, protect, and increase the workforce who are actually deliver care”.
Meanwhile, NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said NHS leaders had told it that the “recruitment and retention crisis” in social care was increasing delayed discharges from hospital.
“These delays would be extremely concerning at any time,” said deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery. “But given the multiple pressures the health and care sector faces as we head into winter – including the need to tackle the care backlogs and huge demand for urgent and emergency services – it’s an even greater issue.”