Healthcare assistants band together over pay

At health conference, UNISON launches a new campaign to make sure healthcare assistants are rewarded, respected and recognised

Healthcare support staff are launching a campaign to demand fair pay for the work they do, in a move unveiled today at UNISON’s special health conference.

Maura McKenna, the vice chair of the union’s health service group executive, told delegates: “The Pay fair for patient care campaign can help branches to win pay justice and the respect, recognition and reward that this big group of workers deserve.”

Healthcare support staff – mostly referred to as healthcare assistants or HCAs – work as part of the NHS team to deliver quality patient care. Over the years, as roles have evolved and expanded, they have taken on more clinical responsibilities, but without the pay and recognition to match.

Pay fair for patient care is an organising campaign to locally review and re-evaluate the role of healthcare assistants, who are often working at band three level but only receiving band two pay.

The campaign has the potential to boost the pay of thousands of the lowest paid staff in the NHS.

UNISON national officer Louise Chinnery said: “Over the years, we have seen healthcare support workers taking on more and more as a result of nursing shortages and other pressures.

“A band two healthcare assistant should be focusing on personal care tasks like bathing, toileting, feeding and brushing hair. Band three HCAs take on more clinical care duties and patient observations, such analysing urine, doing a pregnancy test, taking blood and doing simple wound care.”

And Ms Chinnery observed that, since in some areas, these roles haven’t been reviewed under the NHS job evaluation scheme for a considerable time, “tens of thousands of NHS staff may have been working above their pay grade”.

“We want healthcare support staff, who are the lowest paid, mostly women workers in the NHS to be respected, recognised and rewarded for all of the things that they do in their role.

“UNISON has pushed for the relevant national job profiles to be updated and this has resulted in the NHS job evaluation group publishing some accompanying guidance to encourage employers to update job descriptions in partnership and  to ensure that healthcare support workers are at the same band.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare how much the NHS relies on healthcare support staff, who have worked tirelessly to care for extremely sick and vulnerable patients while being underpaid and undervalued. It’s high time they got the pay and recognition they deserve.”

The Pay fair for patient care campaign falls under the earnings max projects, a broad strand of UNISON’s work to get people the right rate for their job and ensuring they’re getting the right take home pay.

Under way in the North West

UNISON branches in the North West region have already made significant headway on getting HCAs the recognition they deserve, including the opportunity for band two workers to apply for band three roles, and three years of back-pay for some workers.

The region used UNISON fighting fund resources to engage members and to find out what their duties were and how their jobs had changed over time.

Branch secretary for Manchester University Health Branch Wendy Guest described how it began at Stepping Hill hospital in 2016. The branch provided diaries to HCAs to document what duties they were doing every day.

“It turned out that an overwhelming number were doing clinical duties that were above their band and pay,” she explains.

“We’ve built the campaign over the years, working collaboratively between three trusts: Stepping Hill, Wigan, Leigh and Wrightington and Manchester University Foundation Trust. The branches pulled together organising committees, made from a small team of workers doing the job, to talk to other healthcare assistants and get them involved in the campaign.

“When the pandemic hit, the campaign had to go virtual, and organisers began doing phone banking to keep communication going with the HCAs.”

Where trust management teams were resistant, UNISON brought in local MPs for leverage.

“We got MPs to meet with HCAs, and really showed the HCAs that everyone in the trust was behind the campaign, says Ms Guest. “We got over 2,000 signatures on petitions for support. It’s been brilliant showing the HCAs how valued they are.”

UNISON member Sharon works as a maternity assistant at Manchester University Hospital: “Someone from UNISON came onto the ward to ask if any of us did clinical observations. Most of us do. We filled out the survey and when it went back, I think UNISON realised the size of the numbers.

“As band twos, we’re there to help mums get up when they’ve delivered, feeding baby, bathing baby and giving general advice. But we also do clinical observations, take out catheters and cannulas, and make visits to the pharmacy.

“When I was first in training for the job, I was taught how to take out catheters and cannulas, and input patient observations. I was taught all of that before I even stepped onto the ward.”

Ms Guest explains: “This has always been about engaging with HCAs and being on the journey with them. As the campaign has grown, their confidence has grown and we give a clear message to them that they do matter, what they do is important and what we can achieve collectively together.”

“We’re now at local negotiations and we’ve got updated job descriptions. It’s been a collective effort. I hope other branches and regions take this on too, as I don’t believe this is just a problem in the North West.”

UNISON branches in Northern Ireland, Scotland and in the South West of England are also working on this issue.

The Pay fair for patient care campaign wants HCAs to be:

  • rewarded – healthcare support workers should be paid at the right band for the job, and they should be compensated for the work they’ve already been doing at band three;
  • recognised – the increased contribution of healthcare support staff should be acknowledged. Without them performing their essential clinical duties, the workload would fall on other overworked colleagues and patient care would suffer;
  • respected – staff should be offered high quality training and career development opportunities to help them build their skills and progress within the NHS.

The earnings max section of the Organising Space has everything branches might need to help ‘get it right’ for healthcare support workers, including a branch guide to job evaluation, top tips for building a local campaign, and template workplace materials like a survey, petition, open letter and staff diary.

Leaflets, posters and stickers are available to order on the UNISON shop.