NQSW: ‘I get to the end of the second week after being paid and don’t have any money’

A social worker, and mother of three, discusses what it means to have £9 in their bank account with three weeks till payday, due to the cost of living crisis.

anonymous social worker
Photo by Victor Koldunov/ Adobe Stock

“I want my kids eating well, and I want them dressed appropriately, that they at least have a school uniform. If we’re actually going to be happier with me in the benefits system, then why not? Why push poverty on my family unnecessarily?”

Amy*, a newly qualified social worker, has been contemplating switching to agency work or going on benefits to provide for their family in the midst of rising costs.

The mother of three, the main earner in their family, with their partner earning half as much as them, previously had to borrow money from their parents to travel for work. To avoid that, they are now £1,200 in debt, using a credit card to cover travel costs, as most of their salary goes on childcare, rent and essentials for the children.

Inadequate mileage allowance

Amy was among the 90% of respondents to Community Care’s cost of living crisis survey to say that their mileage allowance did not cover the cost of petrol used during working hours.

In their case, working for a large county council in England, many of their weekly visits, which often number more than 10, involve driving long distances.

“Just getting to the office alone in a week is usually a tank and a half – that’s £60 to £110,” they say.

From September’s pay, after bills, Amy had to take out an extra £400 for fuel, leaving them with £9 in their bank account and three weeks to go until the next payday.

Struggles with childcare costs

Alongside providing for their two older children, Amy previously had to spend £1,000 to £1,300 a month for their son’s childcare, before he turned three, and  the family became eligible for 30 hours’ free childcare a week, last year.

However, this scheme only covers term time, and so they had to pay full fees during the summer.

And the saving has not stopped the family being in debt, because of rising costs elsewhere.

“It’s like that money I got back from childcare, I’ve lost again just to find the bare essentials,” they say.

I get into the end of the second week after being paid and I don’t have any money.”

“And we’re not silly with money, right? We have an Excel spreadsheet [for our expenses].”

The financial strain means Amy and their partner have had to seek help from friends and family. Their mother had to buy their daughter a jumper after she started school wearing one that was small on the wrists and struggled to close.

Amy has also had to make their own share of sacrifices. To afford new shoes for their children this month, they were left wearing a pair with holes.

“I just don’t have the basics of what they need,” they say. “My two older ones [aged 10 and 14] share a room because we can’t afford to move. I tried to get a room divider built so they get their own personal space.

It’s only 100 quid, but I can’t afford it. And I just think that’s absolutely ridiculous. I’m a specialist, I work full-time.”

To deal with the high cost of energy, the family will not be switching on heating until at least November, and they are still unsure whether they will have it on over Christmas. The result, according to Amy, is parental guilt.

“The way my processing works is, I take that on and I feel like I’ve failed as a parent. I took so much time from my daughter to get my education, but even with the long hours that I work, I can’t afford to take them to the beach.”

Worsening mental health

These feelings have affected Amy’s eating disorder, exacerbating self-harming behaviours, such as bingeing.

“When I feel really down or like I haven’t been a good mum, I would then be like, ‘you don’t deserve to be healthy and be looked after’, so I binge junk food.”

However, under their current financial situation, Amy can neither afford to be healthy. The leftover money is used to ensure the children eat healthily meal while they settle for cheap fast food.

“If I had access to healthier food, my brain fog maybe wouldn’t be as much, I’d have more energy, and might rationalise better,” they said, adding their struggle continues at work, where they have to mask so colleagues don’t realise their struggle.

“It just makes me incredibly tired over the weekend because I’ve got to come down from hiding that feeling,” they say. “And then I have to give my kids what they need, in a way that they need, and make time for my partner.”

It’s incredibly demanding. I’m absolutely exhausted this week.”

Lack of employer support

Amy was among 94% of survey respondents to report that their employer wasn’t taking any steps to mitigate the impact of the cost of living crisis.

The focus in their authority has been on emotional, not financial, support.

“We’ve had a couple of conversations, just acknowledging how difficult things have been for us,” they say.

“[That] if we feel that we’re struggling [we should] let our managers know. But in terms of financial support, there have been no discussions, we’ve just been encouraged to write good evidence-based reflections so we can apply for a pay rise.”

In September, they got a pay rise of just under £200, but with that money used to pay down debt, they say it hasn’t made much difference.

One reason respondents may have said their employers had not mitigated the impact of the crisis on them is that most would not have had a cost of living pay rise this year.

Real-terms pay cuts

Last week, unions agreed to a pay rise of £1,925 – or 5% – for council staff in Scotland, which should enter pay packets shortly. A similar deal is likely to go through in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with members of the biggest union, UNISON, already having given their assent.

The offers are the biggest in many years from council employers. However, with inflation running at 9.9%, they constitute a significant real-terms pay cut.

Amy was among over a third of survey respondents (35%) to call for a rise of more than 10%. They call for employers to provide “decent pay that actually addresses issues”.

“[The current situation] is putting unattainable expectations on social workers to preserve [quality], when it’s not sustainable,” they add.

We have emotions, we have needs, and you need a healthy workforce.”

She adds: “We’re being pushed quicker to burn out. I can’t even buy nutritional food for my family – this is not investing in quality social workers.”

*Not their real name

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17 Responses to NQSW: ‘I get to the end of the second week after being paid and don’t have any money’

  1. Liz M October 7, 2022 at 9:51 am #

    This is why I support strike action and work to rule. We potentially will lose a commited social worker. In the meantime putting herself and family under stress whilst doing a full on job. This is wrong.

  2. Thomas Hughes October 7, 2022 at 1:08 pm #

    Mileage allowance is a national scandal. 0.45 a mile for doing journeys that are your job is outrageously bad. Especially in social work where I average 200 miles a week. In doing so, I am effectively subsidizing my employer. I know carers have it worse, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok to shortchange everyone else.

    The last time it went up, Tony Blair was PM!

    However despite all that, expecting employees of an organisation to pay their own mileage for a job they are getting paid for, often poorly, seems an accepted convention.

    I remember raising this with my union, who really just do a good PR job for Local Authorities. They said the Govt had devolved that decision to LAs but they can’t afford it.

    Guess what, neither can I!

    Personally believe if there was a strike on any mileage that is part of the job, LAs would soon cough up.

    • Anne-Marie October 7, 2022 at 3:36 pm #

      Hey Thomas. I totally agree. We are subsidising our employers and it’s simply not good enough. The problem is this convention and people being unwilling to stand for their rights. I always point to the train drivers who do stand and fight and who consequently have better working conditions than your average social worker and better levels of pay, subsidised rail travel etc and are less skilled than social workers. They also do not have to jump through hoops and pay exorbitant fees to maintain their registration!!! It seems that the problem in our PROFESSION is that to many colleges have partners who are the main wage earner and it doesn’t matter quite so much if they didn’t get fair pay and conditions. As a consequence they are not prepared to stand up and be counted. It’s like my GP said to me once ‘ if you aren’t fitting on all cylinders (because you’re burnt out, stressed, struggling yourself) how can you provide your best for your patients’ he certainly has a point.

  3. Anne-Marie October 7, 2022 at 1:08 pm #

    I cannot believe the stance of Unison in recommending a real terms pay cut. I feel that this is simply appalling and would personally have voted against this. I find (as an NHS social worker) that our pay rates are a little better than those working for local authorities but we also face some similar problems with things like the cost of running a car for work (not just the high cost of fuel but other costs like depreciation, maintenance and insurance etc.) The core of the problem is government policy. Sure they come up with all sorts of figures re how much more they are spending but the extra goes straight out the back door to support private providers (part of their covert privatisation policy). If services were private however, then like most other private business, wouldn’t we have an insured car and fuel card as a part of our remuneration package like other workers who need a car for work?
    Quite simply, the current position is untenable and all workers in similar positions need to stand together for a fair remuneration package. Enough is enough – no more real terms pay cuts would be a good place to start

    • Simon Cardy October 7, 2022 at 7:34 pm #

      On a point of information, UNISON ( the NJC National Committee For England,Wales & NI) did not make a recommendation – either way – to accept or reject the August Pay offer. UNISON members then voted to accept the offer by a majority of 2:1 on a 34% turn out. For the lowest paid that meant an increase of 10% and for social workers – on typical scales – an increase of 4-5% the latter falling well short of the 11% inflation rate at the time. There was no movement on the milage rate. That aside, UNISON made it very clear to members all through this years pay claim process that, pay has fallen in local government by 27% since 2010. The problem was, in my view, the lack of ambition in the back in early April to lodge a more realistic 27% pay claim and the failure – agin just my opinion – of the NJC to make a recommendation to reject the offer. That said, on a 34% turn out, would members had gone on to vote for strike action? You are absolutely right to state that the ‘core’ of the problem lies with Government policy with now its even further shift to the right where Truss is threatning to further restrict any trade union’s ability to undertake industrial action. Whilst we can both be critical about the postion of our union, we can’t complain if we dont take part in the debates during the claim or vote. Sadly, those who choose to be members of the Social Work Union have no representation at the negotiating table as the SWU has no collective bargaining agreements at any level in local government. Nor are they likely to obtain them in the near future. This weaken’s social workers position overall The SWU should never have come about in my opinion but thats for another day. We do need to encourage members JOIN the local government regconised unions (UNISON/GMB/UNITE) to get involved now in next year’s pay claim which could start soon. We all need to support other UNIONS who have won recent strike ballots on massive majorities who are on strike, especially get behind the ‘enough is enough’ movement that you allude too and take part in the Peoples Assembly national march and protest on November 5th. Much to do and to act on.

  4. Joe Z Mairura October 7, 2022 at 1:40 pm #

    This is heartbreaking.

    I couldn’t stop sobbing as I was reading this.

    It shouldn’t happen to Amy*(or any Social Worker at that). The irony of it all!…

    …Amy* can’t/ is struggling to provide for her children, and yet it’s all the Amys (Social Workers) out there still expected to ‘protect and ensure the safety and wellbeing of other parent’s children…

    You just couldn’t make it up, could you?

    It’s just NOT congruent, it’s NOT right, It’s ‘CRIMINAL’…

    …It doesn’t have to be that way

    From one Social Worker to another, Amy* and every other social worker out there in the same predicament, my heart goes out to each and every single one of you.

    Amy, I can help; with some very pragmaitc thoughts, suggestions and actions. If you want to reach out… I’m happy for Community Care to pass my email address to you.

  5. Lara October 7, 2022 at 2:19 pm #

    I can feel you!. It is ridiculous, that we are expected to do so many things. Employer asking you to do more face to face contact by travelling when cost of petrol is over £1.60 and you get 45p in return. I now buy economy packaged food and I haven’t been able to add meat ( white/red) into our diet for a while now. We gradually becoming eating veg only. Try to catch up with reduced foods. All to ensure we have roof, able to keep warm, pay for transport so we can work and stay healthy. Where is the healthy nation?.

    • Anne-Marie October 7, 2022 at 3:52 pm #

      Lara. You’re comparing ‘chickens with eggs’ fuel is about £1.70 per litre. (any £,7.75 per gallon) most cars do about 40 mpg so fuel costs are about short of 19p per mile. But if you factor in other costs such as tyres, MOTs, Oil, insurance, cost of buying a vehicle etc – I have to put £20 of additive into my diesel every 3K miles to keep the soot down or it goes to limp mode.

      Lots of extras and then depreciation on you investment in a vehicle – that’s what makes the 45p a trivial amount, it’s not just fuel costs.

  6. Debi October 7, 2022 at 2:38 pm #

    Not only have we to contend with the ridiculous mileage rate of 45ppm, which is now quite archaic but we are now also being told that we have to deduct any commute journey to a base that we cannot use due to lack of space and that we no longer go to since working from home. If we are working from home then our mileage is from our home, not somewhere 40 miles away that we were pushed into going to without any consultations when our building was condemned and had to work a rota as not enough desks there for the whole team. And to add to it, we were asked to clear out any files or personal items as another team were moving in since we were were working from home! I am more than furious and feel for all us social & care workers. This really has to stop, we are being taken advantage of because we are the people who care about other people and want to help. It is exploitation and border line financial abuse!!!

  7. Viv October 7, 2022 at 3:14 pm #

    I can completely relate to this. I’m a single mum who is a newly qualified social worker, having spent 3 years getting into debt to do a job I’ve always wanted to do. However I now find myself struggling on a daily basis to provide basics for my family and often have to go without to ensure my son is catered for and my bills are paid. I also find myself overdrawn and using credit cards that only further add to my outgoings each month on top of the debt accrued through Uni so my situation is only worsening. I have to constantly re-assure people about there situation despite realising that even though they are on benefits they are actually better off than me each month, how does that make sense? I do receive a small amount of UC, however, any extra money I receive will be deducted from this, so again, I’m no better off as the increases to my salary are not enough to outweigh this. Whichever way I look at things, I can see no way of out of the viscous circle we are all finding ourselves in!

  8. Gemma October 7, 2022 at 7:55 pm #

    Unison nationally had a neutral view and left it up to the members to decide whether to accept or reject. In the North West many branches recommended reject however we struggled with low turnouts. The issue being that many social workers don’t seem to want to take strike action anymore or just feel that the offer was better than nothing and need the money now. Speaking here as a social worker fully seconded to Unison branch. Last time we actually went on strike was 2013 over pensions and that was only for a day.

  9. sara r October 8, 2022 at 5:41 pm #

    I qualified as a social worker in 1986 and independent practice educator. PE`s have not had a pay rise in over 9 years and indeed about 8 years ago we got a large pay cut from £14 per day to £10 for each day a student is on placement. We have to wait until the placement ends before we get paid, have to pay tax, national insurance, upkeep of running a car and office, registration fee, buying books. We get 45p per mile.

    If supporting a failing student which obviously means additional work, we are earning below the minimum wage.

    Why do I do it? I am passionate about the next generation of social workers and passing on my expertise and thankfully my husband can support both of us.

    What price education eh!

  10. Chris October 10, 2022 at 7:43 pm #

    I’ve been qualified for 20 years and it doesn’t get any better! I’m getting evicted after living in the home I love for the last 10 years as landlady putting rent up £100 a month. I don’t have £20 leftover at end of month let alone £100.
    I’m going to be sofa surfing with friends or homeless.
    I have had enough & am leaving the profession I used to love. Lack of pay increase, subsidising the council due to low mileage, having to work in isolation as council sold all offices except 2 off which are full of management & project managers, patronising management stating they are doing us a favour letting us work from home-we will save money on buying lunch each day-I’ve never brought lunch as couldn’t afford to!
    I pity any NQSW and would advise look for work elsewhere. The government make soothing noises but budgets cut to point there is no point in assessing people as there are no services to offer.

  11. Liz October 11, 2022 at 9:39 am #

    Our employers, like all employers, aren’t particularly concerned about our quality of life. We are employees and nothing more to them. They mouth “wellbeing”, ” kind”, “valuing”, and turn those into vacuous sentiments. “Bring a cake to work Fridays” were never about “taking care of ourselves”, the phones were never switched off. Now that they have booted most of us out of physical offices tweets and blogs replicate the insincerity. Having faith in the goodwill of your bossess never translates to you as the priority. But, we are also responsible for how we are treated. That most of us bought the “new ways of working”, “embrace technology” narrative like toddlers strung out on sugar, is our shout. We are so easily seduced by the “new”, so beguiled by “innovation” and cheaply bribed. That is on us alone. Our bossess know this. Apparent we are “professionals” so we bind our pay negotiators hands by virteusly proclaiming “can’t go on strike or work to rule, oh no, never, can’t let service users down” then moan when we are expected to take what our employers think we deserve. Apathy reframed as empathy is still apathy. So ofcourse our managers will say “you asked to work from home and we listened”, “you asked us to be environment conscious so we are not going to raise your mileage allowance”. I am retiring in December. My entire 36 year work history, not career, has been in social work, first as an unqualified “House Parent” and then as CQSW qualified social worker. I can speak my mind and don’t have to bother about consequences. When I insisted on an exit interview my manager was candid enough to say nobody really cares about what people say when they leave and more than most you know this so why do you want one? My answer? I’ve spent the last 17 years colluding with the pretence that I really mattered and was valued so why not this too? Whether I nod along to the upcoming speech she is going to make is another matter though.

  12. Sara October 12, 2022 at 10:15 pm #

    I worked in apathy reframed as empathy into a discussion with the PSW in our service and he replied “that’s the kind of cynicism social work can do without”. Couldn’t really explain why it was cynical mind so proceeded to tell us about the apparantly fantastic e-learning for CPD. Inspirational motivation at its very best.

  13. Jackie October 15, 2022 at 7:57 am #

    This was really heartbreaking to read but unfortunately not an isolated story. My employer faced with the government request to cut back even further has asked workers to drive / commute home same day from 300+ mile LAC reviews or pay themselves for a B&B overnight accommodation

  14. Peter October 16, 2022 at 8:35 am #

    In the SWE and BASW world where what you write validates you more than what you actually do as a social worker ofcourse the most important intellectual discourse is about e-learning. Read but don’t think is the bar that forever fails to inspire and motivate. Still I have the £90 counted out and the reflection and learning I’ve stiched up with my peer ready to upload so there is that.