The employment crisis in the social care sector

Lily Wilde, Warwick University, Faculty of Law, September 2017

The social care sector covers a wide range of services ranging from work in nursing homes to overnight care at the home of the elderly or physically challenged. 1.48 million people currently work in social care and, with a predicted increase of the UK’s aging population, demand for carers keeps growing.

The sector has recently come under public scrutiny with a series of dramatic statistics over several years: 900 social care workers leave their jobs every day, a third of nursing homes fail the Care Quality Commission inspection and in 2017 more than 15% of advertised vacancies were in social care. In a country with an unemployment rate of 4.5% and a growing demand for social care workers, why is this sector facing such a crisis? This article examines the causes.

Undoubtedly staff shortages results in a permanent situation of undermanning and pressure for workers staying in the sector. However this extra workload is  also not rewarded appropriately. A full-time social care worker earns £14,800 on average per year, compared to an average salary of £27,600 across all sectors in the UK.

Additionally, the staff shortage has forced many social care workers to limit their time with their clients and increased travel between clients as fewer workers are spread more thinly geographically but some companies refuse to pay their employees for their travel time.

This can be explained by the fact that a large number of employers are private or not-for-profit companies, which cannot afford to pay their staff for travel time. For state-funded organisations, since 2010 councils have cut £4.6 billion from the adult social care budget: due to this lack of funds, many services have had to close. However the law specifies that a worker is entitled to the National Minimum Wage, and should be paid for travelling time during working hours. This does not include the travel time between the worker’s home and the workplace, but it includes all travels undertaken during the work time between the clients’ homes or nursing homes.

The social care sector encompasses many diverse activities. One of the difficulties of a social care worker’s situation lies in the fact that they might be required to sleep at the client’s house. The 2013 case of Whittlestone v BJP Home Support created a precedent for future cases. The claimant, a social care worker, was required to stay at three of her clients’ homes overnight in order to be able to potentially provide care. She was allowed to sleep if her work was not required, however she was not being paid for that time. The Employment Appeal Tribunal had to consider whether the claimant was entitled to claim the NMW for the hours she spent sleeping at the client’s home. The tribunal differentiated between the non-core hours and the core hours of her overnight shift. On appeal the EAT concluded that she was entitled to the NMW during her non-core hours. If the worker is at the client’s disposal, for a specific purpose, and would be punished for leaving the premises during the shift, they are entitled to the NMW. Therefore even when asleep, a social care worker is ‘working’.

The constant lack of staff has created a vicious circle. The failure in the system is due to underfunding, unpaid wages which caused unfilled vacancies and sickness absences. All these factors have an impact on the quality of the services provided, which explains the failure to comply with the CQC’s requirements. Additionally, the constant staff shortage raises the stress levels of the remaining social care workers, who may in consequence call in sick, or on the long run, leave their jobs. This constant pressure has now become a considerable cause of workplace sickness.

As mentioned above, low pay is one of the major factors which deters people from joining the social care workforce. Also, a large number of social care workers are migrants. Brexit will therefore have a significant impact on the sector: free movement is due to end in March 2019 and will add another challenge to the crisis faced by the social care sector as a large number of workers are EU nationals. The number of applications for social care jobs from EU nationals has already dropped by 26%.

Another interesting element is that the social care sector is largely female dominated with 80% of the jobs being held by women. Could there be a link between the low salary and the fact that most social care workers are women and/or migrants?

The profession consists of maintaining vulnerable people’s dignity and independence by helping them in their daily lives. It is an honourable and necessary task, however the profession seems to be permanently undervalued: social care workers have left their jobs to work in supermarkets which offers better financial prospects.

Despite the recent public scrutiny on the sector, the voice of the front-line staff does not seem to be heard. Social care workers do not feel adequately appreciated: the notion that the profession is not an esteemed one is a cause of the constant staff shortage. This lack of respect towards the social care workforce could be blamed on the fact that most of the workforce are women or migrants: therefore discrimination can be considered a factor to the crisis faced by the social care sector. Recruitment and retention represent a major issue as employers do not always recruit the right people for caring roles due to the lack of applications and constant staff shortage.

The staff turnover rate in this sector is of 27%. With fewer candidates from the EU, retiring staff and recruitment issues, the social care sector seems to have reached a dead end. To face the recruitment crisis, the profession has to be recognised, appreciated and properly funded. Additionally the pay and training conditions have to be improved. The fact is that the cuts concerning the social care sector had a dramatic effect on the employers, the employees and the people cared after. The councils need to give an appropriate budget to the employers, so that they can decently pay their employees who can then take proper care of their clients.  It appears that no one has taken the social care issue seriously for the past years until it has reached a critical threshold.

However the government has now acknowledged the crisis as the Queen mentioned it in her speech: “My ministers will work to improve social care and will bring forward proposals for consultation” and HMRC is actively scrutinising the sector in order to protect social care workers. This could be the sign that the Government will stop burying its head in the sand and start dealing firmly with this crisis.

By Lily Wilde

Image used under CC courtesy of Y-Lee