It’s 6.30am and still dark, and Jean is setting out for her job as a home care worker. When she returns in 12 hours’ time she will have made 23 house calls to sick and elderly people, driven 20 miles between appointments and earned £64.80 before tax.
Jean isn’t her real name. Along with fellow care workers in this northern town she is on a zero-hours contract and fears losing work if her employer is unhappy with her. She fears that speaking out about how she has to race between visits, cutting short her appointments in order to earn the “national living wage”, might result in an immediate loss of earnings.Jean is one of an army of care workers who go into people’s homes every day to help with tasks that enable them to keep living independently. As the population ages it is a growing industry, and more than 600,000 people are now employed in the care sector. Those working on the frontline – often for agencies working on council contracts – do jobs such as preparing food, making beds, prompting people to take their medication and tidying up. These jobs are often advertised on minimal rates of pay, and typically they involve no guaranteed working hours.
The agency, as she describes it, is a hard taskmaster. “I leave home at half six and I’ll probably get home at about seven and I’ll get about £270 a week,” she says. “The clients are all lovely and sometimes you go out of your way to do more for them, but it’s hard because there’s no time to get from one place to the next.”
Jean works 12 days on and two days off. Her list of appointments comes through on a Friday but can change during the week as people are discharged from hospital and added to her client list, or admitted to hospital and removed. She may also be asked to cover a colleague’s visits if they are off.
With a zero-hours contract, there is no minimum guarantee of work, and Jean’s days can shrink or grow. She cannot be sure from one day to the next how long she will work or how much she will earn. It can even change while she is on a shift: on the day that I trailed her she was expecting a six-hour shift in the morning but saw an appointment disappear from the roster on her phone while she was at another house. That meant she was instantly down £1.80 on the amount she expected to earn for the day. “Probably once a week you get a cancellation or they will ring you up and ask, ‘Can you do extra?,’” she says.
Some agencies offer higher rates of pay than Jean is on, but the tendency to offer zero-hours contracts still causes problems for workers. One care worker on the London living wage of £9.40 an hour told the Guardian that her weekly pay fell by almost £70 after she lost seven hours’ work. The cuts to shifts come as patients die or are taken into hospital, and workers can wait weeks to be allocated new visits.
In her role as a care worker Jean visits some homes three times a day, making breakfast, lunch and tea, and providing some of her clients with their only human contact all day. Her phone roster lists the jobs scheduled for the day and the length of each appointment. Typically there is a mix of 15-minute and 30-minute visits, although sometimes she is booked at a house for longer.
Councils typically pay agencies for visiting time. When Jean arrives at a house she swipes her phone to say she has arrived, and she swipes again when she leaves. She is paid for the time that is shown on the roster, rather than how long she is actually providing care. The phone tracks her movements throughout the day.
The roster allows no time for travel between appointments – and she is not paid for it. To stay with each client for the full appointment time and make it to the next one on time would require some kind of teleporter – in reality she has to cut every one of them short so that she can leave the house, sometimes put a key back into a safe, get back in her car and travel to the next address. As a result, sometimes appointments scheduled for 30 minutes actually last only 20 so she can stay on schedule. “I’m going to be running around like a headless chicken later,” she says, looking at the afternoon’s roster of short appointments.
On the day I shadow Jean, she works nine hours over two shifts and takes home £7.20 an hour for that time – exactly the national living wage, but only because she cuts appointments short to travel between clients.
She says it is a good day. The morning appointments are straightforward and with people she has visited before, so she knows where they live and how to find things in their homes.
But it is not always like that. “If I have a new patient I have to read the care plan, so that takes longer,” she says. “And I’m often in a home for longer than is scheduled. If I have to call an ambulance for someone I have to wait for it to arrive and I don’t get paid for that time. If I go over by five, 10, 15 minutes on a call then I don’t get paid for that.”
For Jean and other care workers, payment for transport expenses is erratic. She gets some money for petrol, she explains, but the amount varies and is never more than £10 a week. Business insurance cover for her car, along with wear and tear, all add to her costs. In London, one worker told the Guardian she received 56p to cover a week’s visits to a patient done by bus and on foot. A single fare costs £1.50.
For Jean, there are larger concerns than transport costs. It is stressful work, she says, and she feels she has little support. One of the worst things, she says, is the isolation. “It’s a lonely job,” she says – while she may see her colleagues driving past to their calls, she rarely has a chance to speak to them. “You are in the car on your own, you get to people’s houses and often face problems on your own. They tell you all of their worries and then you take them home. Often at night I’m tossing and turning worrying about them.” But despite this she says: “I love my job – I’m completely attached to it.”
Via The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/17/day-in-the-life-of-a-care-worker-zero-hours-contracts)