Over the last year, Scotland’s army of social care workers have been right on the front line of the Covid pandemic.
Often without adequate PPE, and – until June 2020 – without adequate proper sick pay, they worked exhausting shifts in care homes across Scotland to tend to their elderly and extremely vulnerable adults. When hospitals removed patients into care homes at the start of the pandemic, it was these care workers that took on the burden of work. Tragically, care workers were often the only people there to comfort and support elderly residents of care homes in their final hours before succumbing to this disease, with families unable to say goodbye. We cannot underestimate the physical and emotional burden this has placed.
The crisis has only highlighted the huge role that care workers play in Scotland’s social fabric, and how under-appreciated they have been up until now, and even in comparison to the health work force throughout the pandemic. With a rapidly ageing population – c.68% rise in over 75s predicted by 2035 – the role of, and need for social care staff is only going to become more pronounced, to uphold the social rubric of Scottish society.
The case for change.
In its recently published paper “Show You Care”, the GMB Union surveyed 1,600 Social Care Workers across Scotland. Their average pay was just £10.64, well below the UK hourly average wage of £14.80. This inadequate pay disproportionately affects women, who comprise 83% of the workforce. Similarly their total package for sick pay, time off and travel time is vastly insufficient.
The survey revealed that 82% of social care workers feel undervalued by their managers and 89% believe social care is not adequately funded. This undervalue is compounded by a lack of training and development opportunities in the profession, leading to issues of staff retention and recruitment. Many believe a lack of support and time is compromising the quality of care they can provide.
The Scottish Government is to be commended for having conducted an extensive review of adult social care, published last month by Derek Feeley. It acknowledges the fact that the social care workforce in Scotland feel ‘undervalued and under recognised.’ Its main recommendation is to create a new National Care Service which directs funding for the social care sector. On pay, the review notes that increasing the social care support wage bill to the Real Living wage will cost £15.5m, with this acting as a floor, requiring an extra £100m per annum for every £1 p.h. extra. This indicates an additional cost of £500m for a £15 per hour wage.
Scotland needs to take an active role in recognising the value of, and supporting care workers. The Scottish Parliament could make a commitment to paying a minimum care wage of £15 per hour a key pledge – as a way of honouring their response to the pandemic, but also the thankless work they do generally, day in, day out.
Any pledge will signal to society their work is valued and important. Just as the US created a ‘GI Bill’ for soldiers returning from World War II, so can the pandemic provide the impetus for a ‘GI Bill for social care workers’.
The Feeley report, and its recommendation to replace competition with collaboration in the Social care sector could provide the mechanism to push through a new £15 an hour minimum care wage. This should be supported with a clear learning and development programme to be rolled out to all staff, incentivising retention.
Increased funding for such initiatives needs to come predominantly through extra Local Authority support (with public funding currently at 84% of all costs) and more private sector investment. At a minimum, Local Authorities need to streamline and equalise the funding they provide to privately run care homes, who currently receive less funding per resident than their state counterparts. The private sector will then be able to pass on this increase directly to their care workers, bringing them in line with their public equivalents. There is also scope for the public sector to provide a certain amount of this funding deficit and for it to be matched by the private sector, as long as this cost is not passed onto the residents themselves. Support for funds can also be redirected from senior public sector pay packets.
In showing their commitment to the care sector across the entirety of the UK, Scottish MPs could campaign for the £15 per hour pledge to be adopted across the UK, demanding that the Scottish Government guarantees any extra funding that flows to Scotland be dedicated to the social care sector.
Adequately paying our social care staff is just part of the solution to reforming our care system, in both Scotland, and the UK. The impact of raising carer wages to £15 per hour will inevitably have a knock on effect on the pay we should offer other health workers, operating within the care system and beyond, i.e. junior nurses – any rise for carers should not be conducted in silo. A fair wage for all those key workers is required, worth the value of services required. This starts with providing an adequate minimum social care wage.