Care workers plead for higher salaries amid recruitment crisis

When Sam Thornton left school to become a carer in the early 90s, the pay at the time was considered good.

It was £6.50 an hour, topped up with extra rates for night work and weekend shifts.

Fast forward 33 years and she has 'only had a £6 pay rise", the mother of two tells Sky News.

Not only that but her responsibilities have "become so much more immense".

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Now a support worker for adults with disabilities, Ms Thornton's daily tasks include administering "lifesaving medication", changing stoma bags, bowel care, PEG feeding, and liaising with physios and consultants.

That is on top of "the basic stuff" like cooking and cleaning, providing emotional support and helping people manage their finances.

"The list is endless," she says.

"I don't think people understand the intensity of it at all. Some days you are so busy you haven't had a drink.

"The pay that we are on does not in any way reflect what we should be paid. The whole system is broken.

"In 33 years I have had a £6 pay rise for a hell of a lot more responsibility."

Ms Thornton from Oxfordshire, is on £12.50 an hour. That is about the average salary for care workers and support workers in the UK, though there are significant disparities between privately employed staff and local authority staff - with many paid less than the real living wage.

Unions, industry leaders and other groups representing care workers say the wage floor needs to be much higher to address a growing recruitment and retention crisis - with some 150,000 vacancies in need of filling.

£15 an hour 'bare minimum needed'

For Karolina Gerlich, a former care worker turned charity chief executive, an hourly rate of £15 is "the bare minimum needed to save the sector".

The organisation she runs, the Care Workers Charity, provides grants to staff in need and has seen a "huge increase in demand" amid the cost-of-living crisis.

"At fist we could meet that demand but now we ration them on a monthly basis because we just don't have enough money to have them open all the time," she says.

The grants provide people with financial support to help them pay off debt, cover their bills and prevent eviction.

"We aren't paying people to go on holiday, it's very basic things like feeding and clothing their children.

"People don't get paid well in the first place, they are living pay check to pay check, so if their car breaks down and they can't get to work, their washing machine breaks and they can't wash their uniform, they have no savings and that's where we come in."

Like Ms Thornton, Ms Gerlich stressed that the role of a care worker has become increasingly medical - and much more difficult than most people think.

'It's work done by the invisible women'

But it doesn't get the respect, and therefore pay, it deserves for three reasons, she says.

She added: "It's mainly done by middle aged women, the invisible part of the society... so there's a sexist attitude that this is women's work and they should do it for free. There's also a large migration population in the workforce which comes with biases as well.

"Then there's an ableist attitude in society and government, that the lives of people who draw on care are not valued so why would people who do the job be valued?

"And it's not registered, it's advertised as anyone can do it, and all of this piles on and creates this idea we can be paid minimum wage and that's ok."

What have politicians proposed?

The care crisis has largely fallen off the political agenda in recent years. Boris Johnson's 2019 pledge "to fix social care once and for all" - with policies such as a cap on care costs - vanished over the horizon even before his downfall as prime minister.

It means the country has headed into the general election with the system "on its knees", according to parliament's Public Accounts Committee, which blamed "years of fragmented funding and the absence of a clear road map" on rising waiting lists, staff shortages and strained local budgets.

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All the main parties have offered solutions to fix this: The Tories say they will enact their delayed reforms and the Lib Dems are promising free personal care and to raise the minimum wage of care workers by £2 an hour.

Labour - tipped to win the keys to Downing Street after 14 years in the political wilderness - have pledged an unspecified fair pay agreement for carers alongside a programme of reform to create a National Care Service.

But the plans have been met with a lukewarm reception from Andrew Dilnot, the architect of the government's delayed reforms to social care.

He has told Sky News politicians need to "grow up" and tackle the crisis in the sector - believing they are reluctant to do so for fear of being accused of future tax hikes.

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The lack of staff mean beds in care homes are laying empty while hospitals face record waiting lists. The workforce has become heavily reliant not only on overseas workers, but an army of unpaid carers looking after their loved ones.

The issue ultimately boils down to getting more money from central government, without which "commissioners can't afford to fund providers at better rates", says Rachael Dodgson, chief executive of care company Dimensions.

This is one of six not-for-profit providers that wants the next government to benchmark and fund minimum care worker pay at NHS Band 3 to give it the recognition "it deserves" and put it on equal footing with other sectors.

While people like Ms Thornton still see support work as a vocation - despite sometimes struggling to afford basic things like new glasses and dentist appointments - younger people are less willing to stick it out, the 51-year-old says.

They are either leaving in droves for easier and better paid jobs in retail and hospitality, or "not considering it as a profession at all".

"We are struggling to make this job desirable for the younger generation, who is going to do this when you can work in Aldi for more money and far less responsibility?

"If you have a caring personality and the wages are there then it's the most rewarding job you could ever have but its seen as the poor man's job.

"We are all going to get old one day I dread to think what the care is going to be like if something doesn't change."