So first a bit of background about me, I have worked in health and social care for nearly thirty years. I started doing a BTEC in Caring services after I left school, I chose this at the age of 16 because it is a vocational qualification which included work placements as well as classroom-based learning. I then went on to do an HND in caring services and a degree in community studies doing work placements throughout. My first paid job was in a residential school for children with cerebral palsy and complex needs and it was this job that really inspired me. The school I worked for was ahead of its time in terms of person-centred planning. That basically means putting the service user in control of their support and care and involving them along every step and wherever possible it is up to the service user how they want and need to be supported. In order to achieve a well-rounded care package means we work alongside other people with other expertise, this is known as the Multi-Disciplinary Team and can include experts such as psychiatrists, social workers, Nurses, Doctors etc.
Working as a support worker in social care is often viewed as being unskilled and has and is held in low regard by both local authorities and the government and until recently had been described by national politicians as being ‘low skilled’. Historically this is because in the past it was seen as ‘women’s work’ and shows that there is still massive gender inequality in the workplace. As a support worker I have found that we are often overlooked. The idea of ‘skilled’ and unskilled work only serves to prop up wealth inequality and lessens the human value and beneficial impact of what we do. We are the bedrock on which a lot of health and social care sits. Our job is vital and requires skill, knowledge and dedication to do it well and properly, yet we are paid a pittance. This fact has now started to make headlines and is now in the national press and much more in the public awareness as the corona pandemic has made it more and more apparent. For much too long we have been described as low skilled and have remained some of the lowest paid workers in the country. Social care is mainly made up of female and migrant workers and this has a lot to do with the exploitation we have been subjected to. This pandemic has shown that we are essential and dedicated to what we do, whilst the bosses and those in positions of authority have demonstrated again just how incompetent and cowardly they are with CEO’s, directors and senior managers working from home whilst frontline staff are expected to take all the risks often without proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).
It is well known by people who work in social care how much employers in this field exploit their workers and how badly they can be treated and I know this from personal experience having worked for both good and bad organisations. This has also started to come into public awareness with the Covid 19 outbreak as many social care organisations show a complete lack of regard for their workers’ safety and those who use their services. Since the social care sector was privatised, I have seen the rise of many new social care organisations that have moved in to fill the gap left by the closure of statutory care homes. It should be noted that some of these organisations genuinely do try to provide a high standard of care to their service users and also recognise that in order to do that they need well qualified, dedicated and experienced staff and that they are more likely to get this if their workers are paid a true living wage as set out by the living wage foundation (£9.30 across the UK and £10.75 in London) and given decent working conditions but it really is a bit of a lottery out there.
A high percentage of care workers use public transport as many cannot afford to run a car. Public transport however is often geared around peak times (9-5) and does not factor in those who work shifts or unsociable hours. Many care workers can start work as early as 0700 and finish as late as 2200. I myself leave for work at 0600 to start work at 0745 in the morning, I do a 12-hour shift and finish at 2000 and do not get home till around 2100. I must catch two buses to get to and from work. We are also required to work weekends, evenings, public/bank holidays including Christmas, New Year and Easter and we often do not get paid any extra for doing this. Yet we do it every day despite the risks to ourselves and our families, we do it because we know how vital and important our job is and we are passionate about what we do and we care deeply for those we have a duty of care towards. Some support workers during the Covid 19 outbreak have shown their dedication and even moved into their places of work leaving behind their families to try and shield those they support from the virus.
On the other hand, care organisations have shown their usual ‘commitment and passion’ to their workers by treating them as badly as possible in order to protect their profit margins. Most care workers have never been eligible for contractual sick pay as most care organisations do not offer it, so they only get SSP. A number of care homes are refusing to give sick pay to workers who have been told by the government to stay at home because they are at high risk during the coronavirus pandemic. The Independent newspaper on 5th April wrote:
‘A company in northeast England that runs more than a dozen residential and dementia care homes in the UK, is providing guidance to managers of the facilities, stating that employees who have been advised to social distance for 12 weeks must not receive sick pay unless they are showing coronavirus symptoms. Unions and charities said they had seen the same policy in place in other care providers, and warned that it meant care workers were in some cases attending work despite being at high-risk of contracting the virus.’
The company’s guidelines, seen by The Independent, state that employees who are ‘shielding’ – meaning they have received a letter or text from their GP advising that they are high risk due to underlying medical conditions and are advised to stay indoors – will not receive any sick pay if they take time off work. It reads:
‘If these employees decide to follow this advice and therefore not attend for work, as long as they are not showing any symptoms of Covid-19, then they are to be recorded on Care Blox as authorised absence (Covid-19) and this is unpaid. They will not qualify for payment under the statutory sick pay.’
Stuart Gilhespy, GMB organiser in the north of England, who received the guidelines from this organisation after requesting clarification on the company’s sick pay policy after concerns were raised by members of staff, said:
‘The policy was forcing people to choose between safety and feeding themselves. Care workers are just as important as the NHS, and it’s only through successive governments from both sides that we’ve ended up with a privatised care sector, which is already on its knees as far as funding goes.’
Karolina Gerlich, executive director of the Care Workers’ Charity, said the charity had also been approached for help.
‘Some careworkers have been told by HR that there is not enough money in the system to pay for such a long leave. This is made more difficult because many care providers are already severely understaffed due to other care workers self-isolating for two weeks.’
When this crisis is over it is fairly obvious that the health and social care sector needs to be completely transformed to work for the people who use its services and for those who provide those services, rather than run in the interests of profit. It is clear that the way the health and social care sector is now simply cannot continue as it has.
No going back!