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Into Perspective: How do we address care workers’ pay?

It has been long understood that care workers’ pay simply isn’t enough. Whether you compare care workers’ pay to that of their colleagues in the NHS, consider the disparity between some care workers’ pay and the National Living Wage or agree with the 82% of the public backing Government investment in social care to fund a pay rise for care workers, it’s no longer a question of why should care workers’ pay be addressed, but rather it’s a question of how and when.

Closing the financial gap

From April 2021, the National Living Wage (NLW) will be increased to £8.91, a growth of 19p from the current rate, £8.72. According to Skills for Care, it is estimated that 35% of the adult social care workforce (equating to roughly 485,000 workers) is currently paid below the new NLW rate. In addition, analysis from Skills for Care for the Living Wage Foundation reveals that nearly three quarters (73%) of independent sector care workers are paid less than the Real Living Wage of £9.50 across the UK and £10.85 in London.

Introducing long-overdue reform for the social care sector has been identified as a fundamental vehicle for increasing care workers’ pay. In October of last year, the Health and Social Care Committee, chaired by Jeremy Hunt, called for a 10-year funding plan for reforming social care. Of the committee’s headline recommendations, an increase in annual funding of £3.9bn by 2023-24 was top of the wish list. This would serve to increase the average pay in social care to just 5% over the NLW, according to the Health Foundation.

Recognising the skilled nature of the social care workforce is also acknowledged as a long-standing tool for increasing care workers’ pay. Providing competitive pay in comparison to other sectors such as retail, alongside ensuring parity with NHS staff, must be considered as possible avenues for change. In the case of NHS parity, the case has been made to link social care pay to equivalent bands of the NHS Agenda for Change contract, identifying clear progression opportunities.

Problems in practice

Despite its widely regarded necessity, the prospect of increasing care workers’ pay faces a series of challenges in the real world. The fact that most care workers are employed in the private sector immediately limits the materialisation of any proposed increase to sector funding in workers’ pay.

To combat this, The King’s Fund suggests public sector entities must come up with ways of agreeing increased pay for care workers when commissioning private care services. In addition, greater investment in training and qualifications to motivate progression through sector-specific career pathways is an encouraging prospect for increasing care workers’ pay, The King’s Fund continues.

A further issue associated with increasing care workers’ pay is the comparison with other sectors outside health and care. Although a steady growth in the NLW seems like an attractive prospect for increasing social care recruitment, it could result in jobs across other sectors with low pay closing the gap with social care, according to Skills for Care.

As a result, the price to pay for increased recruitment seems to be that of retention, with the risk of workers preferring employment in roles typically associated with less responsibility than social care, for close to if not the same pay.

Changing public perception is key

The latest Skills for Care statistics showed the average pay for care workers at £8.50 per hour, compared to the National Living Wage of £8.72. With care providers currently struggling with the additional costs associated with the pandemic, to increase the pay of their workforce is something they simply cannot afford.

Underfunding is both a cause, and consequence of, a general lack of respect and recognition for care workers – whose job is perceived as low skill, and therefore low value. This then drives down hourly pay rates as there is no expectation, or belief, that care workers need to be paid any more than minimum wage for their ‘easy’ work.

To remedy this perception, a proper reform of the social care sector is needed. Such reform must be centred on the workforce, and include workforce professionalisation, as well as adequate investment from the Government into the sector.

The social care sector must stop being perceived as the place where money goes to die and instead where investment gives a significant return on the UK economy.

A report from Women’s Budget Group showed that investing in care would create 2.7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction – giving it a greater impact on the overall employment rate, as well as decreasing the gender employment gap.

There are, rightly, expectations that social care providers and workers provide a good or excellent quality of care to those who access the sector’s services. There should be similar high expectations that ensure care workers receive decent pay on which they can live and not
just survive.

Adequate national funding is needed to ensure providers are able to do this – and that care workers are not paid minimum wage because of providers’ financial constraints.

Care workers play a vital role in the lives of those who use care services, as well as positively impacting on our economy and society. It is unacceptable that we expect them to do this on minimum wage.

Increasing care worker pay is an investment worth making to ensure we continue to provide high-quality care to those who need support.

Karolina Gerlich, Executive Director, The Care Workers’ Charity

The time for action is now

The response of care workers to the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of magnificent. That will have come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the sector, but it has clearly struck many others. We must capitalise on this new awareness to seal the deal on a social care people plan we can be proud of.

None of us can have much pride in how we typically reward care workers at the moment.

With average pay rates 25% lower than for equivalent jobs in the NHS and rates for workers with five years’ experience just 12 pence an hour more than those for colleagues with less than 12 months in the job, it’s no wonder the sector has an estimated annual turnover rate of more than 30% and carries an estimated 112,000 vacancies at any one time.

We have to look after our people better. At ADASS, we are calling for a national care wage equivalent to NHS rates; an enhanced wider reward package so that workers can be confident of support like proper sick pay; and training and career progression that encourages staff to stay with their employer.

Alongside this, there must be greater support for family carers through increased carer’s allowance and respite opportunities.

What we cannot do is continue to rely solely on increases in the National Living Wage. While the significant rises in this legal minimum since 2016 have been welcome, and the target that it should reach two-thirds of median earnings by 2024 is one we should all support and safeguard, the way it has squeezed differentials between entry-level pay and rates offered to higher-grade workers is making staff retention and career progression ever more challenging. Pay has to be looked at across the board.

In the end, nothing will change unless and until the sector gets the long-promised sustainable funding and the fresh blueprint for adult social care that we have repeatedly been assured are imminent.

A comprehensive people plan must be a cornerstone of that programme.

James Bullion, President, Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS)


About Karolina Gerlich

Karolina Gerlich is the Executive Director of The Care Workers’ Charity and has been a care worker for over twelve years. Leading the CWC since March 2020, Karolina has already had a huge impact, in…

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creasing the CWC’s efficiency, platform and support giving capacity. She is proud to represent the social care workforce and embodies the mission that no care worker should face hardship alone.

About James Bullion

James Bullion commenced as Executive Director of Adult Social Services in Norfolk January 2017. Nationally, James is the Vice President of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS)…

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, stepping up to become President in the Spring of 2020.

His role is to develop and transform services in a department responsible for spending £440m each year supporting adults with care needs. The county is diverse, and the role works with seven district councils, and 12 local NHS bodies to deliver integrated working.

James leads on development of primary and community care for the Nor folk and Waveney STP.

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