We need to stop treating care workers like disposable labour

I worked as a homecare worker for about 18 months.

I stopped because I couldn’t afford to do it anymore.

Homecare earned me only four or five pounds an hour – well below minimum wage – because my company wouldn’t pay me for the time it took to travel between service users.

On a typical day I’d visit people to care for them from 6:30am until lunchtime.  On an average day I’d spend four and a half hours in people’s home and over two hours travelling between them – but I’d only be paid for the time spent in people’s homes.

Read the full blog from an anonymous homecare worker on Left Foot Forward. 

UNISON has empowered me to speak up

Polly Smith, homecare worker

Once I was in a care home and a man took out a knife. The non-trade union members didn’t act on it – they thought if they told anyone about it, managers would think they were complaining and they’d lose their jobs. But I thought that there must be a reason behind the behaviour, and I rang the office and told them about it.

I work in homecare now as part of a re-enablement programme, which means we try to get people to regain independence so they can do things for themselves.

The oldest person I went to visit was 104 at the time; she did everything for herself. She had trouble bending over, but she could boil an egg. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you can’t do things for yourself.

Nowadays I see a lot of harm being done. Employers are getting away with a lot and non-union members are letting them. For example, not letting homecare workers have breaks: some start work at 6.30am and finish at 10pm.

It doesn’t have to be like that – it leads to stress and sickness. You’ve got to stand up for yourself, and unions help you do that. Unions are insurance (with a small ‘i’); if you want assistance, if you want advice, the union can do that for you.

Homecare workers have a lot more responsibility than people give them credit for. People think homecare workers are just ‘the help’ who go in and do a bit of cleaning, but we can see when people are getting really ill. We see people once, maybe four times, a day so we notice the change in people – in a way doctors can’t.

The saddest thing is the impact of the cuts. For example, in the past someone who was incontinent was given pads and an inco sheet (which absorbs urine) for their bed .

Now they only get one or the other, so I’ll go in to see people in the morning and their pads are soaked, their beds are soaked, their mattress, even the floor. If they’d had an inco sheet it would have absorbed it.

In the end, it turned out the man with the knife was on the wrong medication. They only realised because I rang up. It was changed and he was completely different; he didn’t hurt anyone, or himself.

That’s what being in a trade union does – it empowers you to challenge things.

"I felt totally frightened, let down, alone and vulnerable"

The first time I was faced with a convene, I did not know what to do. The client handed me a tube of adhesive and I kind of muddled my way through but it was very embarrassing for both myself and the client. The number of dementia and mental health cases has increased dramatically lately and whilst I have had basic training in dementia care, I have not had any in mental health and I have requested this many times but nothing happens. I have been to paranoid schizophrenics, been threatened with a knife twice, had no back up from management and felt totally frightened, let down, alone and vulnerable. Myself and my colleagues frequently ask to work in pairs for these clients, especially at night, and when working in rough areas but this is ignored. I was today (again) hit by a dementia client. Who cares about us carers? - Anonymous homecare worker. 

"we need more time with the clients"

I only worked visiting elderly clients for a year but had experience working in care, I never got offered extra training due to this fact but was asked to do jobs that needed at least two people, given not enough travel time as I worked on foot and used buses.

The timescale given to assist someone to dress, wash offer breakfast and take medication was shocking: it varied between 15-30 mins. I know couldn't get ready in that time, why are expecting someone elderly or suffering with dementia to?

Lack of knowledge, training and support from the office is part of the problem, but we need more time with the clients. It's very easy to forget the social side of the job, having interactions with others during the day is far more important than how many clients can a company fit in 

I still work within the care sector but centre based; I've now had lots of training and gained experience in various care based skills.

I would love to work in home support but time is an issue and it would break my heart to not give my all.

- Anonymous care worker

"I am so grateful for the on-going help mum and I are having now"

At the end of November last year, my daughter who lives in Australia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within eight days she was having surgery and desperately needing to see her mum...me. Now at the time I was looking after my mum who has dementia, as best I can… not easy working full time, but mum can still be at home on her own just now with help...she forgets whether she's eaten, taken her meds...what she did five minutes ago...or what you said…so she just needs prompting or helping to heat a meal etc.

I rang my doctors surgery and made an appointment asap, and the memory clinic, explaining that I needed help with my mum, why, and what I needed. They were great, a week later I was able to go support my daughter in Perth while she recovered from surgery and prepared herself for chemo... and my lovely mum even more confused but in good hands was looked after and supported while I was away.

I could not have done that without the help they gave, my daughter is doing well, and am so grateful for the on-going help mum and I are having now. At this stage we are coping. Thank you.

 - Anonymous

"Their pay is far too low"

I am 62 years old and my experience is that my wife and carer has to do all my personal care. My legs are partially paralysed due to degeneration of my spine.

The main help I need is with my legs, lifting them up from my orthopaedic chair into my wheelchair and lifting my legs up from the bedroom floor and into the bed.

I understand from talking to home carers is that their pay is far too low, their work is too rushed for safety. Some carers have back to back appointments too far apart to be practical and I've been told some get paid 25p a mile which is a lot less than the volunteers get working for the Volunteers Bureaux. This has actually put me off applying for home care. I wouldn't want to have any of my care rushed because I am prone to falls and feel rushed care is unsafe care.

- Mr James ORourke, Northampton 

"I will never cease to be grateful to her, and those like her"

My mother needed homecare for the last few years of her life (she died in 2011 aged 96) and we paid £9 per half hour to the council for an am and a pm visit each day, to ensure she could wash and dress, had eaten and taken her medication. The care was outsourced to a private company.

One of the morning carers, Joan, was turned 70 herself, and helped mum wash, dress, then rushed round, loaded soiled sheets into the washing machine and hung them to dry the next morning, sorted out breakfast, supervised mum taking her meds and often prepared a sandwich for her lunch as well.

This outstanding, hardworking and very caring woman went more than the extra mile.

However because the evening visits were 6.00pm and mum didn't want to go to bed then, some of the evening carers used to just check she'd taken her meds and asked did she mind if they went on to their next visit, as they had so many more to get through, and some clients needed bathing and putting to bed.

Mum always felt sorry for them and said she didn't mind. Occasionally they were only there five minutes, or didn't turn up at all. Some of them had poor spoken English, and a ninety year old woman, hard of hearing, had a real problem with this.

There is no consistency, no standards adhered to and I suspect the pay is so poor, that the job doesn't attract many people who are prepared to work their socks off like Joan.

She found my mum very poorly one morning, after she hadn't been to bed at all, and she took care of her until the ambulance came.

Again, she did more than her brief, and I will never cease to be grateful to her, and those like her. They are thin on the ground.

"travel time is always taken off our rotas so they can cram more calls in"

I work for a large homecare provider. We are always short staffed, so travel time is always taken off our rotas so they can cram more calls in. When we complain the answer is to cut the times of the call down. 

I do not think it right, if a client is paying for 30 minutes care and only getting 15 it is wrong. When new care workers start they should have a week’s training,  then they should have two week shadowing. They are lucky if they four or five days.  We complain to the office there is always an excuse. Complain too much they can cut my hours which I cannot afford.  It is a zero hour contract which should be banned.  

- Eleanor, homecare worker

"You can't leave somebody half dressed or without food just because they have run out of call time"

In the last ten years I have seen many changes to the homecare service unfortunately none of them have been for the better. When I first started working in home care if I needed extra time to complete the care it wasn't a problem. Now we are told if the client  wants to spend time drinking a cup of tea or having a chat that time comes off the care time. 

People are living longer and often have complex health and care needs which often can't be fitted into a 15 minute care call. It is a service that is meant to look after people but forgets people are individuals. The service makes no allowances for the time it might take to persuade somebody with dementia to let you complete their care tasks and it not the type of job where you can leave if you run out of time. You can't leave somebody half dressed or without food just because they have run out of call time.

When we look after clients in their nineties their children are often in their seventies and sometimes find it difficult to help out with the needs of their parents, especially if they are in ill health themselves. 

If you have mobility problems you will probably never have a bath or shower again.

I work for the local council so I am paid above average, for mileage and for travelling between calls. I wouldn't be able to afford to do the job if I worked for an agency.

- Mary, homecare worker