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Expert Comment: Invest in our Care Workers - Don't Undermine Them

Here Dr Laura Waite, Senior Lecturer in Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University, discusses why now - more than ever before - we should be investing in our care workers, not undermining them: 

“I’ve been left horrified - as many others are - by a new Supreme Court ruling that ensures care workers who have to sleep at their workplace are not entitled to the minimum wage for the entirety of their shift. It was a case brought by former ‘sleep shift’ worker Clare Tomlinson-Blake against the learning disability charity, Mencap.

It could, and should, have been a watershed moment for the UK - an opportunity to prompt a complete review of the way in which we fund our care system. 

Instead this decision undermines and belittles support workers, and does nothing to improve the lives of disabled people who rely on that support. It’s particularly tough to take right now, at a time when care workers like nurses are held in such esteem because of all the work they’ve done through the pandemic. Now is not the time to start devaluing our carers or putting people off from applying for these roles. 

The action Mencap has taken does not sit well with me. They call themselves the voice of learning disability. Yet, I’ve worked with people with learning disabilities for 35 years and there’s not a single person I’ve come across who’d say carers don’t deserve to be paid a minimum wage for their night shift work. 

I recognise that organisations like Mencap are in an impossible position - they get paid by local authorities to provide services, and the system has been underfunded for many years. 

Let me tell you about my own experiences working these ‘sleep shift’ patterns as a carer in residential homes for people with learning disabilities. In all of the hundreds of sleep-in shifts I’ve done, I may not have worked all night, but I’ve worked late into the night, writing notes once people have gone to bed. And I certainly didn’t sleep. 

With virtually all of the residential homes I worked in, the ‘sleep-in’ room was also the office, where you also stored medication and undertook all your administrative duties. It’s not a ‘bedroom’. You’re exhausted. It’s like being a mum with a newborn baby, constantly alert to the slightest noise. You just don’t get a proper sleep because you’re waiting to hear if someone has got up, or even if someone has had a seizure during the night. No carer goes into a deep sleep. And I also take umbrage with the idea that this isn’t working. I’m not at home. I’m not in my own bed. It is work. 

And it can be frightening. It’s a big responsibility to be the only person there with a group of people with learning disabilities, for example. 

You come in at 2pm in the afternoon, you work until 10pm, the other members of staff go home, and you’re left behind as the sleep-in person. In my case, most people weren’t in bed at that point, you can't force the people you support to all be in bed at 10pm when you supposedly start you "sleep-in". You can then carry on until 2pm the next afternoon. I’ve had weekends where staff rang in sick and I was there for 72 hours, with no sleep. 

A decade ago, we saw the Winterbourne View abuse scandal - where a Panorama documentary uncovered a pattern of serious abuse at a private hospital near Bristol.

And this new ruling is all part of the same problem; recruitment of people with the right values for the job. We were already absolutely desperate for social care workers before Brexit made staff shortages even worse. 

Why aren’t we putting our energies into changing social attitudes so that we value the lives of disabled people and older people? And why aren't we doing all we can to make the support work profession more attractive, rather than trying to sabotage it? 

Several care providers have welcomed the Supreme Court ruling saying backdated minimum wages would leave to many bankruptcies. 

But for me, that scenario is a double edged sword. Yes, it would be painful, but it would have also forced the Government to really examine the state of the industry. 

The reality is that years ago, there were very few care providers, and care was largely provided directly by the local authorities. But these were all thrown out to tender, where there’s masses of competition, and they’re all trying to undercut each other to get the contracts. Because of austerity and under-funding, there are caps on what an authority will pay for someone’s care. 

If a care provider bankruptcy is what it takes to make the Government understand how dire the situation is, is that a price worth paying? And I don't think the government would have allowed an organisation the size of Mencap to go under. Mencap has a long rich history and even had the Queen Mother as its patron for many years. They could have stood up for the smaller organisations. 

Even the term ‘carer’ undermines what a support worker actually does. A ‘carer’, to some, might suggest little more than ‘making cups of tea and washing people’. But it’s so, so much more than that! We have to deal with medication and medical technology like feeding tubes, we make life or death judgements on people’s health and wellbeing, we have to use our initiative and think on our feet, and we’re faced with ethical dilemmas all of the time. You have to respect rights and freedoms while also having a duty of care - and balancing that is no mean feat. You’re not just supporting people to have a bath. It’s an incredibly skilled job and the reality is we’ve got a workforce that isn’t being equipped to do it well. 

We can’t keep sitting back and simply saying, ‘It’s a broken system’. And we don’t want to be patronised by those who’ve lauded us during the pandemic, talking about ‘our amazing key workers’. 

We need to pay people what they deserve and to give the profession and the people it supports the respect they deserve.”

Published on 30/03/2021