Social workers and OTs take strike action over pay inequalities

    UNISON members working in adults' services in three-day walkout over £3,000 bonuses given to children's services staff that they do not receive

    South Gloucestershire Council adult social care strike April 2023
    UNISON members on the picket line outside South Gloucestershire Council's main office (credit: South Gloucestershire UNISON)

    Should employers pay social workers market supplements/bonuses in roles that are hard to recruit to or retain?

    • Yes, it effectively tackles workforce shortages (64%, 282 Votes)
    • No, it creates unwarranted inequalities in pay (22%, 98 Votes)
    • It is sometimes justifiable within strict limits (14%, 63 Votes)

    Total Voters: 443

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    Adults’ social workers and occupational therapists have carried out a three-day strike over inequalities in pay with children’s colleagues at a local authority.

    About 60 UNISON members at South Gloucestershire Council have taken the action in protest at £3,000 recruitment and retention payments received by children’s social workers on similar grades to them at the South West authority.

    The union went into dispute with the authority over the issue last summer, in relation to the payments introduced for social workers, advanced and senior social workers in children’s services, involving:

    • A £3,000 lump sum for recruits who have already passed their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) on successful completion of their probation.
    • A £3,000 annual payment for those with two years’ service with the council.

    UNISON argued that the payments should be applied to adults’ practitioners on the same grades – including OTs – both on grounds of fairness and because the recruitment and retention pressures that were the drivers for the bonuses applied equally in adults’ services.

    However, the union said, the council did not respond to the dispute with any offer to adults’ practitioners, prompting a ballot for strike action, which won 94% support. Practitioners walked out this week, from 4-6 April.

    Adults’ social workers ‘feel less valued’

    UNISON staff representative and senior social worker at South Gloucestershire Sophie Hall said: “From a social work perspective, our role and career are around providing equitable services to the community. We just want to be treated with equity ourselves.”

    Fellow social worker Rachael Darbishire, also a UNISON representative, said: “I’m passionate about the important work we do, but this wage inequality makes me and my colleagues feel less valued. The challenges may be different, but we work just as hard. The council should pay us all the same.”

    Michael Sweetman, UNISON’s South West regional organiser, added: “Those in adults not only do the same jobs for the same employer, but they also have similar problems in recruitment and retention.

    “The council has shared some statistics with us – the evidence for South Gloucestershire and nationally shows that, while children’s services are the hardest to recruit and retain, adults’ are not very far behind.”

    Latest England-wide figures show increasing vacancy and turnover rates for both children’s and adults’ practitioners in local authorities, nationally, though shortages are significantly higher in the former, at 20%, compared with 11.6% in adults’ services, as of September 2022.

    Bonuses more common in children’s services

    Eighty three per cent of councils faced difficulties recruiting children’s social workers and 71% were similarly challenged in respect of adults’ practitioners, while 72% and 57%, respectively, reported the same with retention, found a Local Government Association survey carried out in spring 2022.

    Notably, while 25% had used market supplements to attract staff in adults’ services, double this proportion (48%) had done so in children’s services.

    UNISON’s strike mandate allows members to take action up to September 2023 at South Gloucestershire. Sweetman said that the authority had invited UNISON to a meeting on Tuesday 11 April, leaving him hopeful that a deal could be done.

    “People are feeling optimistic that the council will listen to the message and will table an offer,” he added.

    A South Gloucestershire Council spokesperson said: “We are dedicated to responding to the issues staff tell us are important to them and we want to create environments where our workforce can thrive. We received positive results to our recent adult social care staff survey and the outcomes of the external health check for social workers with adults has shown that we are continuing to make progress.

    “The council remains committed to engaging with UNISON to meet our shared ambition of investing in career development and preparing our staff for the future challenges social care faces.”


    31 Responses to Social workers and OTs take strike action over pay inequalities

    1. anon April 6, 2023 at 4:36 pm #

      This is a fair point and totally worth striking over.

      Most local authorities in my area offer £2500.00 a year to children’s social workers as a retention paynent but not to adult social workers.

    2. Henry April 6, 2023 at 5:28 pm #

      Even the naming of different grades suggests children’s workers are somehow better. In the trade, we all know they’re made seniors after about six months, whereas as senior adult worker usually has 5+ years experience. Sadly, ego can be really problematic in social work and doesn’t achieve good outcomes for service users or build good teams. The ‘senior’ label is not much more than a pat on the head to stop you asking for a wage increase. This post is probably too honest to be printed. Children’s services truly believe adult sw just find care for older adults.

      • Dawn Holness April 6, 2023 at 11:53 pm #

        Totally agree .

      • Miriam April 7, 2023 at 12:01 am #

        I’m a children’s social worker and I’ve never thought adult social workers just find care !!! Many children’s social workers know adults work is not a walk in the park. I don’t know any social work post that is easy and there should not be a difference in pay for adults or children’s social workers .

      • Fen April 7, 2023 at 7:42 am #

        The retention is much worse in children’s services, so it isn’t surprising that people who stay reach senior levels much sooner.
        As someone considering both options (adults/mental health, children’s) and on a children’s placement (student), the difference is massive. All the students on adults teams leave on time, have manageable caseloads, whilst children’s reeks of desperation.

      • Catherine April 7, 2023 at 9:16 am #

        Totally agree with what you are saying. There is a real divide in social work between children and adults, with many believing that adults is the “easier” option.

      • Anne H April 10, 2023 at 7:18 pm #

        Children’s social workers are definitely not made ‘seniors’ after 6 months. Decisions to pay retention fees are not made by SW’s, so let’s not blame each other for managerial decisions. Retention is a very real issue in children’s and the reasons for leaving not acknowledged. We should be standing together as SW’s not tearing strips off each other.

    3. Anon April 6, 2023 at 9:30 pm #

      Watching Social Worker after Social Worker leave the
      team because of the real terms pay cut that we are living with is so soul destroying particularly when the complexity and volume of the workloads plus the technical beaurocracy involved in the job just keeps growing. To then have Children’s teams being awarded large cash lump sums to stop their staff leaving is a just a level of disrespect too far.

      • Amie April 11, 2023 at 10:15 am #

        totally agree

    4. Fen April 7, 2023 at 7:39 am #

      As a student social worker about to qualify, I’m insulted that they can protest for supplements in adults, which is a totally different landscape to children’s as stated in this article with much lower retention problems, instead of providing any solidarity or support to student social workers who currently spend £14k on the (masters) degree with barely any bursary funding and then must complete an entire year of unpaid entirely unfunded placements (in Wales, you don’t even get a full mileage rate from the bursary, if you don’t have the bursary you get 0 travel costs!)

      If you don’t fix the rate and types of people coming into the profession nothing is gonna change. I’m more empathetic than most but I still am only managing based on middle class advantages, and it means a massive gap between workers and families. I’m not at all impressed with these strike actions which are definitely more divisive than constructive. Don’t you want that money spent on more services, better services? Where is the economic justice.

      • Henry April 11, 2023 at 9:54 pm #

        We were all regularly insulted as we were about to qualify. With respect, after ten to twenty years, you’ll understand the system better. There’s an imagined hierarchy between the teams. You won’t understand until you’ve worked in several. Anyway, I hope you can hang onto that drive. But try and trust that experienced social workers and OTs would not be striking in a whim. Perhaps put your comment in an envelope and open it in ten years. Then see how naive it sounds.

        • Opal Lady April 14, 2023 at 1:23 am #

          Totally agree – Fen, you need to gather experience BEFORE you make comments on a role you have in effect only ‘played at’. You chose to ‘spend’ £14k on a masters.

          Just because some social workers have a ‘masters’ does not mean they are a better social worker are going to have longevity..I have a DipSW and have nearly 20 years experience in front line social work. ‘Middle class advantages’ weren’t an option for me. Despite this, I know I am a committed social worker who treats service users how I would like to be treated and don’t look down a ‘middle class nose’ at them, explicitly or otherwise..

          I agree with Henry. If and when you get to the 10 (or even 2 year mark) it’s likely your naivity will be ‘different’ to that in 2023.

          Good luck in your journey as you grow and develop!

      • Anon April 11, 2023 at 11:29 pm #

        I’m sorry but you are talking absoloute rubbish wait til you have been doing the job for a few years and handled some really difficult cases and seen some horrendous things that can never be unseen before you make such sweeping statements about a what it’s like to work in adult social care please

    5. Fen April 7, 2023 at 7:39 am #

      Plus it isn’t lump sums. It gets paid monthly across several payments, not just £3000 no questions asked.

      • Anon April 11, 2023 at 11:47 am #

        No it doesn’t. It’s a lump sum.

    6. Anonymous April 7, 2023 at 8:33 am #

      This is exactly what happened in Swansea Council about one year ago and Unison did nothing about it when contacted several times. It is a complete kick in the teeth.

    7. Sallie Johnson April 7, 2023 at 9:35 am #

      Work with children has always had more “deserving” attention which just mirrors our societies addiction to “successful families”. Just a reminder though…we are all adults for considerably longer.

      • Henry April 11, 2023 at 9:55 pm #

        And all those damaged children become adults.

    8. George April 7, 2023 at 1:26 pm #

      I am SW for South Glos. Personally I feel the retention bonus is justified to recruit and train children’s social workers. Perhaps the reason recruitment and retention figures between adults and children’s services in SG are close is due to these payments. Never worked in Children’s Services myself however it looks to be a very challenging area of practice. That said, I respect the right of colleagues to strike for better pay and conditions. 🙂

    9. Sue O April 7, 2023 at 6:06 pm #

      Is this a reflection of the value given to the particular service group being provided with care? Might be considered somewhat ageist?
      When I trained in the 1990’s there were identified levels of competences and skills to become qualified social worker. Having achieved this we were then equal professionals and then decided whether to work in Adult or Children’s services. Has this changed?

    10. Amy April 11, 2023 at 9:17 am #

      As a previous children’s social worker who previously worked in an adults hospital discharge team… children’s social workers deserve the payout. Both tough jobs but the pressure in childrens is just ridiculous.

      • Peter Teague April 11, 2023 at 11:34 am #

        Totally agree. Unless there are signs of mental impairment, adults are more predictable with practical needs. Children’s Services involve a client group that carries a sword of Damocles like stress, especially with safeguarding issues.

        • Henry April 11, 2023 at 10:04 pm #

          Qualified adult social workers are allocated complex cases and safeguarding only. Mental health and learning disabilities require additional training. I’ve done all of them. Students and unqualified staff work with predictable, low risk adults. Try working with child abusers with substance misuse issues, who also have learning disabilities. Imagine heading up those MDTs with probation, police and substance misuse services all looking at you because they don’t know how to work with LD or MH. You’ll be responsible when it all goes wrong. Try going into a vulnerable adult’s home when they’re being cuckooed and the flat is full of crack dealers…on your own. The work is hard, dangerous, and looked at as less than. Our children’s services colleagues should be in our side. Leave the ego in your first year at uni when you learn about power imbalance.

          • Old Skool SW April 12, 2023 at 1:18 pm #

            Hear hear Henry.

            The minimalism of the complexity of Adult Social Work reflects an ignorance from our learned colleagues. Where is the solitary?

          • Anon April 12, 2023 at 4:45 pm #

            I totally agree, I don’t think people who work in children’s or students who have not work post qualifying in either can say they know what it’s like to work in adult care. Just as I wouldn’t pretend to know how hard the job is in Children’s as I have haven’t worked in field.

    11. Amie April 11, 2023 at 9:57 am #

      I do not think it is helpful to have infighting between adult and children’s Social Workers.. The job on both sides is an extremely challenging one. The reason we have got to where we are now is because of the lack of funding from central government. It is their fault… I support student Social Workers and am passionate about them remaining in the role – most of whom do not have middle class advantages, and often drop out either before the graduate or within the first year.. There is a bigger picture here, it is not just about the money. It is time that we stood up and make our stance, otherwise things will only get worse.

      • Frida K April 11, 2023 at 3:55 pm #

        Very well said. Middle-class, privileged students and social workers telling other social workers they should not strike or deserve better pay and conditions is not the way forward with this.

    12. Anon April 12, 2023 at 3:53 pm #

      The retention pay isn’t enough of an incentive to keep children social workers. I was awarded the retention pay but after nearly 8 years of working evenings, weekends and my annual leave I had enough and wanted a work life balance. I now work in adults services (yes it’s hard work like all public sector jobs) but it is not comparable to my experience in child protection. I don’t work weekends or my annual leave anymore and I can switch off from my work. My well-being is much improved and I wouldn’t go back to child protection if I was paid a £30.000 bonus with the current working conditions. I think there should be a caseload cap based on a point system depending on the complexity of the cases. Social workers should not be expected to work beyond their contracted hours however due to safeguarding issues you feel you have no choice or children could be at risk. I enjoyed the work as I felt like I was making a positive difference but it was to the expense of my own well-being. I wish the caseloads were manageable for the contracted hours as I would have stayed. Unfortunately I ended up burnt out so I had to leave and now looking back I can’t believe I did the role for so long.

      • Anon April 12, 2023 at 4:54 pm #

        Fair enough comment but lots of SW,s in adult social care work also over thier contracted hours because of caseload expectations and risky cases plus staff shortages. if your lucky you might get to take some flexi back but more often you acrue to much and then lose it at the end of the month. Also when you try and take it back you get behind again its a vicous circle.

        • Anon April 12, 2023 at 10:59 pm #

          I understand it is hard and I’m not minimising the work in adults. The point I was making is the working conditions is the issue more than pay (although I agree we are not paid enough for the work we do) and that is what we should be highlighting more is my view. I felt heightened all the time worrying about the unmanageable case load and how I would ensure everything was done so children and their families were safe. The cases were in my name and therefore I was accountable. You really had no choice but to work the cases in your own time due to the amount of work you had and it was an expectation. The more you did to keep on top of the work the reward was more cases. It was constant with no respite. I never went off sick but it was starting to make me anxious and I could not sleep due to worrying all the time. Then covid 19 happened and this led to burn out for many of us. This is why no amount of bonus would take me back there as no amount of money is worth that level of stress. In adults I do work a couple of extra hours some evenings but I never feel like I have no choice but to do it.

    13. MaxP April 15, 2023 at 6:37 pm #

      Adult SWers deal with very complex case loads and safeguarding concerns as routine. Assessing mental capacity around the initial identified risks is often the first assessment written up before the IA and often an ongoing cause of stress.
      I remember saying to a good friend who works in children services how difficult her job must be seeing the things she does. She countered by giving her opinion that adults would be worse to work in because of the things adult SWers see; adding “I won’t be a child again, but I’m going to be old one day”.
      Both areas are without doubt difficult, but in different ways.