Care workers cut short visits to elderly as workload soars

Frank Field MP.
The MP Frank Field’s report paints a bleak picture of conditions for care workers. Photograph: David Rose/Rex/Shutterstock

Social care workers are cutting short visits to frail elderly people, or working unpaid overtime to keep up with huge workloads, a new report finds.

Some are paid as little as £5 an hour for helping Britain’s growing number of older people to live at home – assisting with eating, taking medication and getting out of bed. One in three earns less than the national minimum wage or national living wage because they are not paid for time spent travelling between clients.

The report, by the independent MP Frank Field and his assistant Andrew Forsey, paints a stark picture of a workforce where low wages, zero-hours contracts and disillusion are rife. Field, MP for Birkenhead, said it was “a scandal” that workers performing a key role in the lives of Britain’s growing elderly population were so poorly paid, hard-pressed and badly treated.

“We have an army of 815,000 vital social care workers in England alone who are extending people’s independence by helping them to stay at home, but they aren’t being rewarded,” Field told the Observer. “When ministers see this report they should ask themselves: what would I think if it was my mum being exploited and treated like this for doing this job? The situation is intolerable for workers and families who rely on this care.”

The report, which the union Unison supported, is based on interviews with 98 social care staff. It says: “Some care workers reported that they are given so many people to care for in one shift that they either have to cut short each visit to make sure they arrive on time for their next one, or go a long way beyond their contracted hours (unpaid) to ensure each person’s basic needs are met.”

It found that for one in three care workers, pay is below the £7.38-an-hour national minimum wage for those aged 21-24, and less than the £7.83 minimum stipulated for those aged 25 or over under the national living wage because of unpaid travel time. Half said that they had no choice except to work on a zero-hours contract. “There is a high turnover of care workers which all too often results in people receiving sub-optimal levels of care,” the report said.

It also found “the present nature of the job often leaves [care workers] feeling isolated, demoralised, forgotten and undervalued”.

One interviewee described how they worked two shifts a day: from 7am until 2pm, and from 4pm until 11pm. “But I will only be paid 10 or 11 hours’ pay for both shifts, when I have been working 15 or 16 hours with only a 30- or 60-minute break all day,” they said.

Age UK warned that an underpaid, overstretched workforce would inevitably result in vulnerable elderly people receiving poor care. “This report reflects the struggles many paid carers face every day. The truth is that if we treat care workers badly this is not only unfair on them, it is a sure- fire recipe for poor quality care,” said Caroline Abrahams, its charity director. “If older people are to receive the good quality care they deserve, the paid carers who provide it need a much better deal as well.”

Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary, will publish a long-awaited green paper on what experts and all political parties agree is much-needed reform of social care, which has been hit by severe budget cuts since 2010, despite rising need linked to the growing elderly population.

A spokesman for the department said: “We are working to ensure the adult social care system is able to meet the demands of our growing ageing population, and will soon launch a recruitment campaign to further raise the profile of the sector. Later this year we’ll set out our plans to reform the social care system to make it sustainable for the future.”