Public sector staff forced to skip meals as cost-of-living crisis deepens

Fair pay is essential to tackle spiralling bills


Fair pay is essential to tackle spiralling bills

Low-paid public sector employees including teaching assistants, hospital porters and care staff are unable to cover basic living costs with the vast majority (95%) finding it increasingly hard to pay their household bills, says a UNISON survey published today (Thursday).

As the UK experiences the highest inflation for decades and with another energy price cap hike imminent, UNISON warns that thousands of workers are forced to cut back on essentials such as food, transport and healthcare.

The union has gathered the experiences of low-paid public service workers ahead of the launch of its major report into the cost of living crisis to be released early next month.

The survey findings – based on responses from more than 3,000 public service workers earning £20,000 or less – show many are skipping meals, not visiting the dentist and taking on second jobs to cope with the cost-of-living crisis,

A total of 84% say rising bills and pressures on their household budgets are taking a toll on their health.

The survey results are contained in UNISON’s Together We Rise report, which calls for fair pay to tackle the economic crisis and suggests taxing high incomes to pay for it. The responses highlight how government support to help with soaring energy bills is failing to tackle the scale of the crisis faced by households.

More than half (53%) say the financial help does not address concerns about rising bills because of other increasing costs such as food and petrol. More than two fifths (42%) say what ministers have offered comes nowhere near addressing their financial worries.

Hit hard by the current crisis, many on low wages are having to take or plan to take drastic measures to get by, says UNISON.

Strategies to make ends meet include switching off heating (80%), limiting car journeys to reduce petrol costs (64%), keeping lights turned off (60%) and avoiding visits to the dentist (30%).

Nearly a third are skipping meals (31%), with some doing this in order to allow their children to eat (11%). A small proportion are avoiding – or planning to avoid – cooking hot food (13%), and some aim to find a smaller or less expensive home (8%).

The government’s failure to address low wages is putting public service staff under intolerable work strain and leading to others quitting the sector altogether, says UNISON. Nearly two in five (39%) said they have or plan to increase work hours, 27% to take a second job, and 19% to leave the public sector for a job elsewhere.

Being forced to borrow money is another alarming impact of low wages and is leaving workers in deepening debt.

More than a third (37%) are relying on credit cards to cover everyday spending. A similar proportion are asking friends or family for financial support (33%) while others are using a foodbank (12%), taking out bank or building society loans (13%) or pay day loans (8%).

The mental toll of the cost-of-living crisis on low-paid workers has been significant with four in five (80%) affected by anxiety, three-quarters (75%) feeling down and more than two-thirds (67%) having difficulty sleeping.

Commenting on the findings, UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The cost-of-living crisis has decimated household incomes.

“Low-paid workers have nothing left to cut from their budgets. They’re now forced to take drastic measures which could damage their health and leave them deeper in debt. Some may never recover from the financial and emotional hit.

“Many can’t afford to work in public services any longer, which will have a devastating effect on our communities. The government must realise that to protect services and the people who rely on them, staff need to be paid fairly with wages increases in line with, or above, inflation.”

Notes to editors: 
– UNISON carried out the survey online during June 2022. The findings are based on responses from 3,688 public service staff earning £20,000 or less who work in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The sectors in which they worked included health; education; social care; local government; police and justice; water, environment and transport; and energy. Survey data is available on request.
Case studies (names have been changed):
-Mark, a library assistant, said: “I’ve only eaten one meal per day for the past week to squeeze my food budget out for the rest of the month. I was just surviving before. Now my energy bills have doubled and I’m scared of what the winter will bring.”
-Beth, a teaching assistant in special needs, said: “I’ve always prided myself on being good with budgeting. But rising living costs mean I can no longer make my wage last the month. The time each month when I’m forced to go into my overdraft is getting earlier, and I never needed one before this year.
“I’m a single mum and really struggling now. I’m in desperate need of dental work as a tooth broke over two years ago. But I can’t get an NHS dentist and there’s no way I can afford to go private.”
-Lucy, a healthcare assistant, said: “I’m on maternity leave and my husband was off sick for three months. It’s been a real struggle and we’ve had to borrow money off family, go to food banks and collect free items from websites. I’m worried that I’ll have to choose between heating and food in the winter.”
– The forthcoming Together We Rise report is part of the union’s national cost-of-living campaign, also called Together We Rise.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.