Huge disparities in financial support for care workers during the pandemic show the government must act to ensure staff are not left in financial peril and become more willing to take health risks, says UNISON today (Monday).
Staff in the care sector, who need to self-isolate, shield or have the virus, have told UNISON they’re being forced to take unpaid leave or survive on minimal statutory sick pay (SSP), leaving them hundreds of pounds out of pocket each week.
Some have been told by their employers to use up annual leave or make up time for free when they return to work.
UNISON research shows the situation varies widely between employers. Many care workers complain they are being left high and dry with next to no income, even though their workplace may have been where they contracted the virus.
It means a significant number have no choice but to carry on working against public health advice because they can’t afford time off, increasing the risks of spreading the virus at work and to their family, says UNISON.
Ministers must make sure care staff who need to take time off or reduce their hours don’t lose out financially and feel compelled to work whatever the cost, says UNISON.
The union wrote to health and social care secretary Matt Hancock calling for the government to ensure that financial aid intended for care staff actually reaches them and isn’t kept by employers to cover costs.
But the response from care minister Helen Whately makes clear that cash-strapped councils will have to absorb the financial burden of monitoring and enforcing the distribution of the funding.
UNISON says the potential costs of doing this mean it’s unlikely local authorities – often with dozens of care providers in their areas – will have the resources to pursue employers who don’t pass on the cash to their staff.
The union’s research has revealed that pay arrangements for care workers who take time off while ill, isolating or shielding differ wildly.
While some good employers have allowed workers to stay off on full pay, others have fallen far short, says UNISON.
Situations reported by workers include being paid just 10% of their usual salary; receiving sick pay for a week and then SSP of £95.85 for any remaining time; being temporarily furloughed; taking time off as holiday and using up their annual entitlement; and being told to take time off as unpaid leave.
Some say they’ve been kept in the dark about arrangements, with one worker finding their wages had been reduced by £500 following a two-week absence, with no explanation about how this was calculated.
For those who have needed to shield – either for themselves or family members – just 31% were fully paid, a UNISON analysis of responses from care workers found.
More than one in five (22%) received only SSP, while 9% were told they had to carry on working and 8% told they would receive no pay at all.
The analysis showed one in ten care workers said they were aware of colleagues who continued working despite having Covid-19 symptoms.
Other staff have told the union their income is dropping in other ways with care home workers saying their shifts have reduced because the number of residents has fallen dramatically.
Some care staff working out in the community say they have fewer people to look after because some clients are in isolation or shielding, affecting their payments.
UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “It’s a confusing picture for care workers who are being treated very differently depending on where they work.
“But the bottom line is thousands are facing heartbreaking choices about whether to stay off work or pay the bills
“Already on incredibly low pay and in precarious work, they feel compelled to carry on simply to make ends meet and keep their jobs.
“Around one in ten of those who’ve been in touch know colleagues who’ve continued working when they should be isolating, while some are avoiding being tested because they can’t afford to take time off.
“It’s scandalous that less than a third of those shielding had been offered full pay especially when the government says care workers shouldn’t be penalised for following public heath advice.
“Ministers have to make sure care staff are not out of pocket so we can halt the spread of the virus for the sake of carers and the vulnerable people they look after.”
Some of the care workers contacting UNISON said:
- “I was isolating for seven days and only received SSP. This had a massive impact on my financial circumstances as I am the only earner at home and still had bills to pay.”
- “I was Covid-positive after contracting it at work and was off for three weeks. I have a mortgage to pay and bills, and I don’t know how I’m expected to survive. I put my life on the line, survived and was repaid with SSP. Although I was eventually symptom-free, I felt I returned to work too soon as my fear and anxieties went through the roof and had to be given medication from my GP.”
- “I was told I could stay off but would only receive statutory sick pay. I had to continue working although I have diabetes and was advised to take 12 weeks off but obviously couldn’t afford to.”
- “I had to self-isolate for 14 days due to a member of my household having symptoms. I received SSP from day one. I do not feel this is enough to cover the cost of living as both myself and my partner were off as he had the virus. As a result I had to borrow money from a family member to pay my bills. I was told I required testing before returning to work and was not allowed back, which meant I lost more wages. My GP said it was not necessary to be tested at that time as 14 days had passed and I remained symptomless.”
- “I am so stressed and disappointed. They deducted more than I should be earning. They robbed me. Honestly, if I knew that the deduction would be this much – more than the usual sickness deduction – I would not have isolated.”
- “It’s very unfair that if we catch Corona in the workplace we are only entitled to SSP (plus a small subsidy, in the case of our employer) but people on furlough get 80% of their pay without going in. We deserve better especially as we’re contracting it from the workplace.”
- One of my family had symptoms, which I disclosed to my office. I was asked to isolate for two weeks and only got SSP. I rang the owner of the home who confirmed I wouldn’t get any pay from my company – for doing the right thing and isolating.”
Notes to editors:
– The letter to Matt Hancock can be read here. The care minister’s response said: “Local authorities must ensure that funding is allocated on condition that the recipient care provider uses it for infection control measures and will provide the local authority with a statement certifying that that they have spent the funding on those measures by 23 September. If the provider has not used the funding for the infection control measures for which it was provided the local authority must take all reasonable steps to recover the money.”
– Of 433 UNISON members who told us about pay arrangements while shielding, 137 were on full pay, 30 were furloughed, 95 received SSP, 36 were not paid, 38 were told they must keep working regardless and 106 reported other arrangements (including the chance to work from home).
– UNISON has been campaigning to ensure care workers can self-isolate if they show symptoms of Covid-19 on full pay. Care workers are being forced to choose between their family’s survival and spreading the virus to the elderly, vulnerable people they care for. There is more about UNISON’s campaign to #StopTheSpread at www.unison.org.uk/stopthespread
– 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.
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