There has never been a more urgent time to address the crisis of care work in the UK. Exhausted, frustrated and despairing at the state of the social care sector, the author recently quit their job as a support worker/carer for a home care company. Here are four reflections on the working conditions of carers:
1. Travel time and timetable gaps.
The root of most of the problems was linked to rota gaps and travel time. Indeed, I wasn’t being paid for the time between my home visits which was having a devastating impact on my income, especially when I was only being paid £7.50/h during the week and £9.28 at weekends.
One Saturday, I started my day at 8.50am and finished at 7pm. Of this time, I was only paid for four and a half hours. These gaps were not large enough to go home, eat or relax. Instead, I spent this time getting a quick tea or coffee somewhere, or reading in the public library.
On another occasion I was out for approximately 12 hours. Eight hours were spent working, but due to the distance between calls, I was unable to have sufficient breaks. Breaks in the day were spent on the bus or walking, so I finished the day exhausted and hungry. On top of this, due to the company’s lack of organisation and professionalism, I was getting between one and three days’ notice for my rotas, so I couldn’t organise my life outside work. I couldn’t afford the work anymore; it was just not worth it.
2. Lack of compassionate human interaction.
Unfortunately, these structural problems are having a real impact on staff and their approach to the job. I entered the sector because I’m committed to supporting vulnerable people, but also because I desperately needed work and knew it was easy to get. Most carers weren’t dedicated to the job. I heard some horrific stories of workers swearing and being aggressive with clients, who would then be moved to a different location – away from the colleagues who’d originally complained about them.
One of the main problems was rushing. Indeed, there were ways to get around staying the full length of each call which some carers took advantage of. On many occasions, some would do the call as quickly as possible, taking shortcuts, then wait in a separate room in the person’s house until they were able to log out. We were also able to log out at the subsequent visit, so some carers would leave as soon as they’d done the absolute minimum, and log out/log in at the next call; losing no time travelling.
To most vulnerable adults, we were their only point of contact with other people, and when colleagues rushed through their work they left out any form of precious human interaction. On my last day, I bought an armchair-bound 95-year-old lady fish and chips for lunch. It was what she’d wanted since I first met her, and I’d never seen her so happy. It is these little things that have such a huge impact on people’s lives which carers are simply not doing.
Obviously, the worst affected are those who are being cared for. I feel guilty for leaving these people as I was always received with immense gratitude and joy for the personal touches I added. I was good at my job and loved it, but simply could not afford to stay. If social care continues like this, it risks losing all of its good carers.
3. Profit before people.
It is evident that the company held profit over all else. The agency charged clients £40/h (so I was told by a client), of which I was getting less than 20%. If this vast disparity seems completely nonsensical, in addition I now owe the company £200 for necessary training because I left within the first six months; yet another way to squeeze money where they could.
During our training, we were told if we didn’t log our hours properly and hand these in each week we risked not getting paid for our work. So we had to log all our hours and minutes meticulously in case we were underpaid – which we often were each month. A colleague of mine was underpaid by a few hundred pounds one month because she supposedly handed her logs in late; she had to fight just to get the pay she’d earned. Instead of focussing on client care, valuable time was lost tracking every minute we worked. I felt like were in a constant battle with our bosses which was exhausting.
The company had newly employed office staff with no previous experience in care whatsoever. One of them once helped me with a client; she was patronising and simply baffled by the whole thing. Without a connection to care, there was no way she could have done her job properly, which she didn’t; she made mistakes with rotas and had to ask our manager when we had queries for her. This was a lady who was often ‘on call’ to carers in case of emergencies. I can’t see how clients could have been at the centre of management’s thoughts when they acted, ever. There are some major structural problems with the care sector, which are linked to private agencies putting focus on efficiency and profit before the vulnerable people they claim to support.
4. A divided and hostile workforce.
The whole working environment was extremely hostile. My colleagues learnt quickly they had to toughen up otherwise they’d be taken advantage of – something I found difficult. All carers would complain about ‘the office’ on a daily basis for one justified reason after another. Often, we were pressured into covering calls at difficult times and short notice. On one occasion (when cycling) I had to cross town and back for two 15 minute calls, because I couldn’t say no to covering them. All my colleagues aggressively complained about each other on a daily basis, most likely spurred on by the competition for clients; from rushing through jobs to banalities like where to put wet washing out in clients’ homes.
There was no chance for workers to gain a full consciousness of our circumstances because we were too busy keeping our bosses in check, and arguing with each other. Further, I only ever met the people I did ‘doubles calls’ with; I didn’t even have any idea how many carers were employed across the city, let alone personally know all of them. Even ‘the office’ seemed far away from me when I worked, situated on the top of the city’s many difficult-to-access hilltops . I visited it twice; for the obligatory training and to stock up on gloves.
We were divided and ruled. When I addressed my colleagues about our problems, they didn’t seem to care about how little they earned. One colleague didn’t even know about her conditions of sick pay and laughed it off when I told her how serious it is.
I couldn’t afford to stay in the job, but the scary lack of consciousness means these workers will remain exploited as carers, and vulnerable people will continue to be squeezed for the unsociable substandard care they receive.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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