Karolina Gerlich CEO at The Care Workers’ Charity writes
The Care Workers’ Charity welcomes the latest workforce intelligence report released by Skills for Care, on the adult social care sector in England. The report highlights several of the devastating challenges faced by the sector and its workforce over the past year, and those that will continue to impact it going forward- many of which we see first hand as we support those social care workers who apply for financial and/or wellbeing assistance from the Charity.
Average sickness time, for example, which has nearly doubled over the course of the pandemic (averaging 9.5 days in 2020/21 compared to 5.1 pre-pandemic) serves to illustrate not only the severity of COVID-19 but indicates a level of physical burnout and exhaustion prevalent amongst the workforce. Although the data presented by the report notes ‘a risk of ‘burnout’ due to the pandemic’, we would argue that for many this point has already been reached – and such wording downplays the impact of the trauma social care workers have faced.
A recent RSA paper (Key Workers in the Pandemic, September 2021) which accounted for the workforce across the UK, found 49% of care workers had already experienced or were currently experiencing burnout- more concerningly, the remainder ‘expected’ to reach a mental health crisis point this winter. We echo Skills for Care in their statement that ‘Workforce wellbeing has never been so important’- not only as a factor in the provision of quality care for those who draw on sector services but as a vital goal in itself to ensure the mental health and wellness of those working in the sector.
We are glad that the Skills for Care report highlights the enormous financial contribution the social care sector makes to the English economy (£50.3 billion per annum). It is frustrating, however, to contrast this with the average pay received by a care worker put at £9.01 per hour. Although this figure is correctly reported as a pay increase since the release of the last report due to an increase of the National Living Wage in April 2020- this data (and the report) rather disguises the worsening financial situation in which many social care workers have been placed. We believe that the Government expectation that a pay rise for a care worker should only just meet the standards for a minimum living wage is wholly unacceptable, and not at all representative of their professional ability or importance. More worryingly, the dire implications of the Prime Minister’s statement on the ‘reform of social care’ have not been explored.
Analysis by Policy in Practice (September 2021) has found that the new Health and Social Care Levy will mean that care workers ‘earning the National Living Wage in April 2022 would pay an extra £121 a year, in effect paying for doing their job of caring for others‘ [own emphasis]. The Levy, in combination with the removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, will devastate already fragile finances and living conditions- and given that we must also consider that food and energy costs are expected to increase by £170 between now and April 2022, the Policy in Practice group estimate care workers will be worse off by £1035 a year. For the Report to focus on the pay increase wrongly indicates that the workforce is in a better financial position than in previous years- and this is not the case. The Care Workers’ Charity is having to pick up the burden of the impact of low pay on the workforce- the total value of all grants awarded by the Charity last year was £2.2 million- an increase of 1,150% in grant-giving activities compared to 2019.
The Report does discuss the worsening pay differentiation within the sector (care workers with five years (or more) of experience in the sector are paid just 1% more per hour than care workers with less than one year of experience) as well as noting the discrepancies between social care and other sectors e.g. retail workers now earn 21p per hour more than care workers. These stats demonstrate the low regard in which social care is held- we call for action to be taken to treat the sector and its workforce as the professionals that they are- with wages, training and respect that are representative of the importance of their roles.
Low pay is just one factor that is contributing to the recruitment and retention crisis in social care, and the report notes that an average of 105,000 vacancies was being advertised on an average day in 2020/21. We agree with the argument linking the decrease in filled posts with the mandatory vaccination policy for care homes- which left care staff feeling that their views and concerns were not being respected or heard and has meant providers are left desperately trying to fill gaps in their rotas, with fewer and fewer people to fill them (between 17,000- 70,000 staff were expected to not take up the policy at the last Government estimate).
With many leaving to take up roles in the NHS, the lack of parity between social and healthcare is once again bought into focus- and will continue to drive people out of the sector. It is also worth noting that the vacancy number is expected to increase- as care workers are reported as feeling ‘a duty’ to stay in their roles supporting others during an unprecedented period. We predict that as many struggle with mental burnout and financial anxiety- we will see a sharp rise in vacancies as those who have stayed during the crisis reach their limit. As it is, Skills for Care estimates a turnover rate of 28.5% (equating to 410,000 people) – and this is set to worsen, particularly as the sector has lost a huge potential pool of workers from the EU.
Prior to the EUSS deadline, over 12% of our care workers came from the EU (UK total). This loss of capacity has been (and will continue to be) devastating for the sector – with the report showing a sharp drop in the number of people arriving in the UK to take up adult social are jobs (1.8% of new starters in January-April 2021 compared to 5.2% during the same period in 2019). We are disappointed that social care remains designated as a ‘low skill’ role on the Government immigration list, further discouraging recruits from the EU and the UK from joining the sector.
Our concern with the report is that it cannot be described as wholly representative of the adult social care sector in England- the report uses data from 8,000 organisations and 650,000 workers but by its own workings Skills for Care demonstrates that the sector comprises of 17,700 organisations across 39,000 care providing locations, with a workforce of around 1.67 million jobs. Although data is partially weighted, there are clearly huge gaps in the reach and thus evidence provided. Indeed, it is highly likely that the report underestimates key aspects of the sector.
Whilst the Skills for Care report speaks of the ‘opportunity’ for social care to be presented as an alternative to other sectors in light of increased automation- we are not as optimistic. The latest ONS figures show the number of job vacancies in the UK has risen to over 1 million (for the first time since records began) (September 2021). In such a competitive labour market, sectors must have incentives (for e.g. decent pay, reward, recognition, respect) to attract recruits. The data showing the pay differentiation between social care and other sectors (hospitality, healthcare, retail for e.g.) illustrates the very real challenge we face without proper reform to pay structures and training provision, as well as a recognition of a career in social care as both valuable and professional. Until this is realised, we will continue to struggle.