It’s time to pay careworkers proper sick pay. Stop trying to paper over the f*cking cracks

Here’s another covid-19 clusterf*ck to add to the pile – this one is about careworkers and Statutory Sick Pay:

Someone recently showed me facebook posts in which a ridiculous carehome manager said that they wouldn’t use the government-issued Infection Control Fund to fund full pay for careworkers who were off work and isolating with covid symptoms. As many of you will know, a lot of careworkers are only entitled to Statutory Sick Pay when they’re off sick – SSP being a paltry £95 a week that absolutely nobody can live on. Careworkers certainly can’t live on it and so they go to work when they’re sick. They take illnesses into work with them.

The Infection Control Fund is a £600m whack that Boris Johnson’s dozy government belatedly set aside in May for councils to distribute to carehomes in their boroughs – Matt Hancock or some other Einstein having finally cottoned onto the fact that careworkers with covid-19 symptoms who were only entitled to SSP’s £95 a week would continue to attend work and spread coronavirus, because they couldn’t afford not to.

The idea was that carehomes could use the ICF to (among other infection control measures) pay full wages to careworkers who were off work and isolating with covid symptoms. A far better idea, of course, would be to admit that SSP of £95 a week is an absolute disgrace and to always pay everyone full wages when they’re off sick – with covid or otherwise – but nobody important wants to admit or address that. Elites and employers the world over live in fear that if sick leave pays enough for people to live on, the serfs will simply pretend that they’re ill and groove away on one long beano. This fear is particularly prevalent among care home brass for some reason. They seem to think that inside every careworker is a goof-off just waiting to take the piss and party. Carehomes have been cutting “too generous” sick pay packages for careworkers to the statutory minimum for years.

Thus, the Infection Control Fund – a thin paper to stretch over another yawning central crack. Needless to say, at the local level, interpretations of the use of the ICF have been intriguing – ie absolutely random and often a circus. This ALWAYS happens when government attempts to address a major structural problem (such as Statutory Sick Pay) in a crisis (such as covid-19’s razing through carehomes) by lobbing a handful of cash at it and hoping for the best.

The problem is that you don’t always get the best, no matter how much government hopes for it. The social media screenshots I received of a conversation about the ICF with a carehome manager were certainly an eye-opener. The manager in that dialogue said that they wouldn’t use ICF money to pay full wages for careworkers who were off work with covid symptoms, because it wouldn’t be fair to careworkers who were off sick with illnesses other than covid (the ICF is aimed at careworkers with covid symptoms, or who’ve had a positive test, etc). That manager in that post said the choice was a “moral” one – ie that it would be unfair to pay full wages to one group of sick careworkers, but not to another.

As someone who has written about cuts to careworker conditions for more years than I care to recall, I am confident that this argument is a pile. Over a  decade on the scene has taught me that finance, as opposed to morals, tends to be the motivation for management actions at carehomes. Let’s think about this for a bit. If careworkers were allowed to isolate at home on full pay for 2 weeks, a carehome would have to find and pay replacement staff. Some councils are apparently helping some carehomes cover some of those costs during covid, but they can hardly all be doing that everywhere (I’ve been checking through council ICF plans to try and understand who is doing what and with what). Then, there’s that ever-present carehome terror of setting dangerous precedents by paying careworkers decent sick pay. If careworkers get to experience decent sick pay once, they might get cocky and ask for it again. They might even demand that all staff receive their full wages when sick, all of the time. Continue reading

Question: How did carework end up in such dire straits? Answer: outsourcing

I’m back. I’ve finished my book on austerity – more on getting a copy at the end of this article.

This article is about careworkers. Careworkers’ dreadful pay and working conditions won fleeting attention earlier this year when the coronavirus started wiping out carehome staff and residents, but alas – big media has moved onto new thrills. That can’t be the end of the story, though. Things have to change. Careworkers and carehome residents have been treated like garbage for years:

There is a problem with writing about attacks on careworker wages and working conditions over the past decades or so: I have too many examples to choose from.

Every carehome worker I met in the last decade was on a picket line in that first instance, fighting to protect already-meagre careworker wages from attacks and cutbacks. For as long as I’ve been writing, careworker wages and conditions have been targeted by a particularly witless brand of neoliberal: local councillors (of all political stripes), MPs (ditto) and the boards/trustees of private and third sector care companies who’ve been united by two of our era’s more perverted beliefs: 1) that care can be provided on the cheap and 2) if you achieve this cheapness by slashing careworker wages and standards, care can turn a profit.

Spawned in this manure, the stories are always, always the same. It all starts when care services, in one form or another, are outsourced from councils, or the NHS, to private or third sector companies. In the following months and years, managers of these companies cut careworker wages and sick-and-annual leave allowances, and direct that money elsewhere. Careworker contracts that were based on public sector wages and conditions – wages and conditions that private care companies swear they will protect – are, needless to say, quickly trashed. New carework starters begin on much-reduced wages and leave provisions – the bar set so low that it more or less disappears.

This model is so standard that you can cut and paste examples straight into it. Take the Fremantle careworkers in Barnet – a group of carerworkers who I first met on a picket line in 2007 and at plenty of strikes in the years after that. These long-time Barnet carehome workers (most were women) went home one day to find a letter from the Fremantle Trust, the company to which Barnet council had outsourced carehomes and the careworkers’ jobs.

That letter did not bring good news. The Trust told the the careworkers that their pay would be frozen and their all-important weekend enhancement pay rates removed. Many of the careworkers relied on that after-hours enhancement pay to meet their bills and mortgages. They hardly earned a fortune even with that money. Losing it was a catastrophe. The sums were simple enough – careworkers’ jobs no longer paid the bills:

“Some people are down three or four hundred (pounds) a month,” Fremantle careworker Carmel Reynolds told me at that time. Reynolds been in the job for 23 years at that point. “People organise their families around [that money].”

There was more, of course. There always is. The Fremantle Trust told the careworkers that it would also cut their annual leave allowances and slash their sick leave to the statutory minimum – the very same first-3-days-without-pay statutory sick leave “package” that many are convinced helped to fuel covid-19’s blaze through carehomes in 2020. Careworkers can’t afford to take 3 days’ sick leave unpaid, so they go to work when they’re ill. Fremantle careworkers were pointing that out even in 2007.

True to pompous form, Fremantle management told the shocked careworkers that they could either sign the new contract, or leave. Then, management rubbed the careworkers’ noses in it a little harder – managers told careworkers that if they were really worried about money, they could try and make their stolen wages back by working extra shifts. More work for less money – Fremantle Trust management seemed to reason that careworkers would be grateful for such a gig. No matter that many of the careworkers had children at home and would suddenly have childcare costs that they couldn’t cover. No matter either that the destruction of careworker wages and working conditions was grossly unfair:

“I said [to Fremantle managers] – how do you expect us to be able to cope…?” careworker Lango Gamanga told me. “They [Fremantle managers] said we could do more hours to make up the money… but what about the quality of our life – our daily life?”

Of course – careworkers’ quality of life is rarely a concern in these scenarios. Concern about workers’ quality of life was certainly nowhere to be seen in another battle I’ve picked from my list: the 2014 Care UK support workers dispute in Doncaster. That was the year that Doncaster Care UK workers took weeks-long strike action in protest at – you guessed it – wage cuts in the form of the removal of enhanced weekend and night rates, new-starter pay cut to £7 an hour and – again – cuts to sick leave.

As ever, this shambles started with privatisation. The Doncaster workers – they worked with people with learning difficulties – had their jobs transferred from the NHS to Care UK when the service was outsourced to Care UK. It didn’t take Care UK long to target their new employees. Implying that the careworkers had been spoiled by their NHS wages and working conditions – “annual holiday… for some people is close to 7 weeks on top of public holidays,” groused Care UK learning disability service boss Chris Hindle with the faux outrage that these people specialise in – Care UK proposed wage cuts that saw the Doncaster workers facing losses of £300 and £400 a month – just like the Fremantle workers

At one strike action, careworker Mags Dalton told me the wage cuts were so severe that she’d have to leave her flat and her job, and move back in with her parents in Newcastle while she found another job and saved up for the deposit on another flat. The Care UK cuts meant that she’d lose about £400 a month. Her rent was £465 a month. She couldn’t afford to keep paying:

“I made a life for myself in Doncaster with friends that I love and a job that I love. I only signed up for the house a year ago. I moved in on the 26th of June last year and the 25th of June this year, I moved out. How did that happen?”

It happened for the same reason that it always happens: when services are outsourced, money is re-routed from frontline staff. At Doncaster, Care UK executives tried to argue the usual toss – that cuts to workers’ wages were necessary if the rest of the business was to stay afloat financially. Curiously, senior staff and executive incomes appeared to be exempt from this do-or-die belt-tightening. Bridgepoint Capital, the private equity firm that owned Care UK, had managed to find around £14m for bonuses to senior staff while careworkers were facing pay cuts of £400 a month. Care UK was also reportedly expecting to make a profit of around 6% for the Doncaster contract. Careworker wages were obviously key to this windfall.

Continue reading

Sacrificing sick, disabled and elderly people for economic gain? This ain’t exactly new

For thrills, I’ve been reading violent arguments for and against ongoing lockdown. I should give social media a swerve on these things, but in lockdown’s longer hours, there is something to be said for focusing on a lockdown thread and trying to decide which side is more revolting.

I’m thinking dead heat at the moment. You have on the one side the righteous types who feel that anyone who breaks lockdown should be tasered out as a human canker and on the other, the (often younger) people who believe that a) their economic chances should trump any flu for geriatrics and b) that covid’s cull of the Boomer and Gen X demographics is one of its selling points (climate and pangolin rescue being the others. I am 51, so am more on board with the last two).

There is a disturbing aspect to this reading though. It’s the fact that so many people seem to think that the Time Before Covid was different – that this furious debate about a stark choice between a strong economy and abandoning thousands of inconvenient people to a grim death is, somehow, new.

You see the word “normal” bandied around a lot, and with a wistful note – as in it could be 6 months before we return to normal, or when will things return to normal? I can only assume that by “normal,” people – or whoever thinks or writes this stuff – mean a time when they didn’t know, or didn’t have to know, that there was already a body count on the economy vs altruism front (altruism having been outgunned for longer than I care to recall). To those who know the austerity scene, there’s nothing new on offer in these covid debates. The economy vs lockdown-to-save-lives dispute is just the latest chapter in a bloody years-old battle between those who champion a nation’s economic fortitude (read “the one percent’s right to rampant personal wealth creation”) at any cost and those who are horrified by that cost. The cost has generally been the deaths of thousands of sick, disabled and/or poor people who were and are cut loose from benefits, care and housing, because those people are considered a financial drag.

Sick or disabled people and anyone with an underlying health condition (I count poverty as such a condition) have been sacrificed for years for the purported economic good (see earlier note about the one percent and wealth creation). The coronavirus has simply brought a hot-news angle to situations where you hardly hoped there’d be one. For example: careworkers have been working for next-to-nothing in godawful conditions for years (weekend pay removed, no pay for travel time, sick leave slashed to the statutory minimum where the first 3 days off sick are unpaid, etc). I’ve written about this many times myself over the years and can confirm that absolutely nobody cared. However – things have improved for careworkers – on the visibility front, at least. The working conditions of careworkers are suddenly centre stage, because covid-19 is killing them and wiping out their clientele. Talk about scoring in extra time. Who says that fortunes can’t change? I don’t suppose that many of us imagined the day when reporters would stake out resthomes for retweets and the latest action, but here we are and there you go.

One more point before I return to the forums: whatever happens next, it’ll be people without economic power who’ll pay. We’ve learned this one over the years as well. Lift the lockdown and people who are at increased risk from covid will die. Plenty of people who don’t have the coronavirus will die as well, because the NHS and care systems will be stretched too thin to meet other needs. If lockdowns go on, though, it’ll be people who need to work to feed their families who will sink. Low paid people who have no savings will probably be knocked out altogether.

The real problem is that millions of people were living on the edge before the coronavirus turned up to push them over it. Sick, disabled and elderly people were dying. Millions of low-paid people couldn’t feed themselves and meet the rent. Lifting lockdowns, or keeping lockdowns doesn’t really take us anywhere new. There has to be a structure that gives everyone a chance. The pre-lockdown structure isn’t it.