When Priti Patel classed social care workers as ‘low-skilled’, a collective gasp of horror could be heard across the sector. For the Home Secretary to dismiss our highly skilled workers – the very people who kept the cogs of society turning throughout the pandemic – demonstrated a failure to recognise their indispensable knowledge and skills and invaluable service. It was a travesty.
At a time when the sector was – and still is – losing workers at an alarming rate, with 112,000 vacancies unfilled at any one time, this stereotyping was shocking. Not only for our employees, who were offended by the disrespect, but for the sector and the long-term future of our country. When we write off some of society’s most essential workers as ‘low skilled’, what does that say about the value that our Government places on the very people they support?
This was one of numerous factors that led Community Integrated Care to develop landmark research that, for the first time, set out in economic, moral and social terms, the absolute value of front-line care workers.
Over the past decade, the role of front-line support workers has changed substantially. With local authorities now only funding social care for those with the most complex needs, support workers are being called upon to apply ever greater levels of skill and understanding. However, rates of pay have not kept pace with the evolution of their role.
We had long argued the moral case for fair pay, but to no avail. This time we needed more. We needed definitive proof of their skill and value in comparison across sectors. So, towards the end of last year, we commissioned Korn Ferry, renowned global experts in job evaluation, to apply their world-leading methodology for evaluating the complexity, content and renumeration of roles.
We chose to assess the support worker role within Supported Living services, as it is a core role in the sector – replicated within thousands of care providers across the country. Korn Ferry’s research was extensive. It examined their responsibilities, skills and pay, and provided a robust comparison of these in relation to other industries.
The resulting analysis, published in Community Integrated Care’s report Unfair to Care, was game changing. It demolished the stereotype propelled by Priti Patel. Far from being low skilled, social care workers were proved to utilise a wide range of skills and competencies.
Support workers were found ‘to understand emotional triggers and behaviour specific to each individual in order to respond appropriately to their needs, as well as offer a high degree of empathy’. The research also noted ‘a requirement to adapt to “in the moment” situational change’ and deliver care ‘which is tailored to the needs of the individual without the immediate support of others’. It showed that this role carried a huge weight of responsibility. It was physically and emotionally demanding. In short, it was complex, comparable to – and often exceeding – the demands of roles such as police community support officers and NHS healthcare assistants.
Most importantly, the assessment concluded that the median annual salary for equivalent roles in other public sector industries, including the NHS and local authorities, would be £24,602 – an incredible jump from the current sector average of £17,695 p/a for support workers in social care. To be on equal terms with their publicly funded counterparts, support workers would need a 39% pay rise in order to match the earnings of their peers in similar roles in other sectors.
The parity gap with the NHS was even greater. The equivalent position in the NHS would be a Pay Band 3 position, with an average take home pay of £24,142. In addition, these NHS roles offer additional benefits such as enhanced pay for unsociable hours. When these entitlements are factored into the mix, their total package value increases to £30,092.
These aren’t pay gaps with their counterparts in other public funded sectors – they are caverns.
Little wonder then that social care has an annual turnover rate of 34.4% – double the 15% average turnover rate across UK employment sectors.
The figures paint a depressing picture for the social care sector, which is dependent upon the skills, commitment and expertise of its colleagues. Care providers are desperately trying to stem the tide, retaining our valued colleagues whilst trying to attract new recruits to roles that pay less than the Real Living Wage. In the absence of the funding reform required to increase wages, many care providers are striving to find other ways to offer financial and practical support.
Support for providers
Community Integrated Care has a Wellbeing Fund for colleagues experiencing financial challenges. Over the last few years, it’s been accessed by many colleagues who have found themselves struggling during difficult times. The stories have often been heartbreaking. The one common factor in each of these stories is that many front-line support workers have few savings to cushion the blow of unexpected costs. They’re living on the breadline, trying to make ends meet every day. Something as simple as a broken washing machine or a car problem can be enough to cause them significant hardship.
Aside from financial support, we strive to offer robust practical and emotional support. We provide recognition schemes where employees can nominate hard-working colleagues for rewards; we use Yammer to create a sense of community in a 6,000-strong organisation and we take every possible opportunity to find creative ways of letting our teams know just how much we appreciate their efforts.
Providers alone can only do so much. We need Government action. Progressive reform of, and investment in, social care is an absolute necessity with as equal an economic imperative as a moral one.
Each year, this sector contributes £46bn to the UK economy. Our colleagues live and work in local communities, reinvesting their earnings back into their local areas. Social care sustains other industries, such as medical supplies, transport services, fuel, education and training, food and drink, building maintenance services and financial services. We know that the sector is ripe for transformation, which we hope will come when the Government eventually publishes its social care review. Those of us on the ground already understand that considerable savings could be made to create the headroom for investment in the sector and pay, by better organising the integration between the NHS and social care. In Unfair To Care, we refer to the UK National Audit Office estimate that 2.7 million hospital bed days, between 2014 and 2015, were occupied by older adults unable to be discharged due to the poor availability of care home placements or homecare packages. The resulting cost to the NHS? A jaw-dropping £820,000,000.
Then there are the many people – close to half a million, in fact – who have left the employment market in the past two years to care for family members.
Social care is here, ready to support the nation’s workforce, to care for their relatives, to free-up hospital beds. But we can’t do it without investment. And we can’t do it without paying those people who are at the heart of the sector fairly.
We know that pay is only part of the solution and, of course, much wider progressive reform and investment for the sector is needed. But it is essential. Without progress, the sector will be forever trapped in this cycle of turbulence.
Visit the Community Integrated Care website to read the Unfair to Care report.
Social worker insights
Jordan Conroy, 26, is a Depute Service Leader in Portsmouth
I work with people who have complex health and support needs. In my eight years in social care, I have seen a big shift in the needs of people who access support. Perhaps a decade ago, the people I support might not have been living independently in the community.
However, the one constant is low pay. The charity that I work for does as much as it can to help its colleagues – providing mental health and employee assistance. It is constantly trying to find ways to better reward its teams, but I know that when it comes to pay their hands are tied without investment into the care sector.
Thankfully, their employee wellbeing programmes were there for me when I needed them, when my dad passed away unexpectedly in December 2020. This was devastating to my three sisters and me. The average funeral costs around £3k-£4k, and neither my sisters nor I had that sort of money. My Dad had no savings or life insurance, so we were planning to sell some personal items or take out a bank loan. Fortunately, Community Integrated Care had a Wellbeing Fund for staff in financial difficulties, so I decided to see if the charity could help.
When I found out I had been awarded the money, I cried with relief. We were able to give Dad the
send-off that he deserved. I am so grateful that we were able to show him our respects, but we could only do that because of the added support within our charity.
The experience of not being able to afford to pay for the funeral was devastating. I know how hard people work in social care and how skilled they are, so clearly the pay should be better. Being on a low wage can feel really degrading and we deserve more. We need action from Government – I hope that Unfair to Care helps make that happen.
Providers can access support from a number of organisations. For wellbeing advice, explore resources and the NHS & Social Care helpline from the Samaritans charity, visit www.samaritans.org. The Care Workers’ Charity has a mental health support programme and offers financial and practical support, visit www.thecareworkerscharity.org.uk for more information. Citizens Advice also offers financial support and useful contacts, visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk.
For more information about the charity, visit the Community Integrated Care website.