Homecare workers, illegal payments and when the sums just don’t add up

It used to take Judith Montgomery three and a half hours to earn two hours’ pay.

That’s because Judith was a homecare worker, and her employer had decided not to pay her for the time she spent travelling between her visits to elderly and disabled people.

Judith is one of the estimated tens of thousands of homecare workers not being paid for their travel time. Homecare workers spend their entire day making visits to people who need care; they are constantly on the move.

And government guidance is clear that they should be paid for this: “Unless they are genuinely self-employed, then workers in most circumstances should be paid at least the national minimum wage when travelling directly from one work assignment to another.”

But most employers ignore this guidance – and pay nothing for travel time. As a result homecare workers find that, averaged over the course of their very long days, their basic pay doesn’t even reach the national minimum.

UNISON believes that this is a scandal, and is urging the government to end the systematic underpayment that it believes is widespread in the sector, by tweaking minimum wage regulations so employers are forced to make pay calculations easier to understand.

Confusing wage slips mean workers struggle to see how they are being paid, so it’s difficult for them to challenge their employers, says UNISON.

UNISON also wants to see HMRC publish the report – commissioned by the government over a year ago – into six major care companies and potential breaches of minimum wage laws.

Most homecare employees work in isolation and rarely see colleagues, so it’s difficult for them to compare their experiences. And even when companies are successfully challenged by individuals over their failure to pay for travel time, these tend to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

If caught out for failing to pay for travel time, firms seldom make amends and correct the payments across the whole of the workforce.

Judith Montgomery’s case highlights the issue of unpaid travel time. The 53-year-old grandmother from Bury was illegally underpaid by her employer Sevacare for two years. She would often start work at 7am and not finish until 10.30pm. “I’d be on the go all day for six or seven hours’ pay. I was shattered and it took a toll on my health.”

Judith is no longer a homecare worker; she now works in residential care. Her days of being illegally underpaid are over, but they’re not quite forgotten.

Knowing that she was working more hours than she was being paid for, Judith went to talk to the rep at her local UNISON branch in Bolton. They thought Judith had a legal claim, and helped her with the paperwork for a tribunal.

The tribunal resulted in Judith receiving a £3,250 settlement from her former employer.

She’s now keen to encourage other homecare workers to challenge their employers. “It’s very difficult to stand up to your employer when you’re a care worker,” she says. “If you’re on a zero hours contract, you’re vulnerable to being given fewer hours if you raise any issues with managers.

“I don’t want companies getting away with it. I want other people working in home care to know that they can get what they’re entitled to, with the support of their union.”

UNISON says it should be the government, and HMRC in particular, making sure that employers are paying a legal wage. And when firms are caught not paying the minimum wage because they don’t pay for travel time, HMRC should step in to ensure that appropriate payments are made to the rest of the staff.

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Homecare workers support the elderly and vulnerable across the UK, yet they continue to be paid below the minimum wage. The government promised to act, but so far ministers have abjectly failed to help these low-paid workers.

“Judith’s case shows just how companies can profit by denying staff payment for their travel time. The government should be doing far more to ensure these firms meet their legal obligations across the board.”

If you think you could be in a similar position to Judith contact your branch.