Our care workers deserve more than badges and applause: Hassan Ortega, UNISON NW Community Chair's Blog

Care workers - and all the disciplines they cover - are high on UNISON North West's agenda. They are our valued members working across the statutory, community and private sectors.

Long before this unprecedented health crisis brought their work into sharp focus for the British public, care workers were campaigning within UNISON NW to expose the chronic under-funding of social care and the often appalling treatment of care staff.

In recent years, problems in the sector have increasingly forced dedicated staff to take industrial action just to get basic pay and minimum standards in their workplaces.

So, when we 'Clap for Carers' on Thursdays, we in UNISON NW know exactly who we are applauding:

UNISON members and their colleagues who dedicate their working lives to caring for and supporting the most vulnerable in our society- those members of our families and communities across all age groups who have learning disabilities, complex support needs, are homeless, are on drug or alcohol recovery pathways or experience poor mental and physical health.

They are highly skilled and person-centred in their work practices and build meaningful and dedicated relationships with their clients and service users. And they undertake this work in a myriad of settings - in day centres, residential care facilities and individuals' homes.

Categorising them as "unskilled" as the government has done is not only wrong and fails to recognise their multi-skilled abilities but, taken in tandem with the changes to immigration rules, does nothing towards addressing the existing staff shortages which stood at around 122,000 even before the COVID-19 epidemic.

Care workers are committed to enhancing the quality of life for those they work with, whilst themselves often endure poor terms and conditions and poverty pay. For too long they have been undervalued, unsupported and poorly remunerated for the service they give, enduring long hours for short pay.

This is a direct result of historic under-funding and a precarious 'market' system, low staffing levels, high staff turnover and a lack of investment in training and professional development.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis our dedicated North West care workers have continued to work in the most physically and emotionally challenging conditions in their workplaces. Just being able to work safely whilst continuing to deliver a quality service has become a major issue across all care disciplines.

Ensuring physical distancing at work is a virtual impossibility for many care settings, so our care workers urgently require access to PPE and testing to ensure they and their service users are adequately protected. This is of vital importance in light of patients potentially being transferred to care homes to free up hospital beds.

Consequently, the emotional impact on staff dealing with the burgeoning mortality levels in care homes is also becoming an increasing issue which needs to be recognised by our employers.

In the North West, following a recent survey of 2,600 care workers- a large majority across disability support, home care and residential care workers believe their employers are not doing enough to keep staff and service users safe from the risk of COVID-19 infection.

That's why UNISON NW is campaigning hard and calling on our employers, local councils and other commissioners of social care to protect care workers' health, pay, families and employment.

Across the sector in the North West we have seen a diverse response from employers to these demands. Some of them very alarming indeed. Some employers have responded quickly and ensured that they have done everything they can to protect their staff and ensure they are not penalised for being off work ill and having to isolate for a period of time.

Typically, other employers have continued to operate very much as before in failing to recognise the need to respond to their staff's legitimate concerns around ensuring everyone's safety.

Other employers have also worryingly failed to recognise the unique situation we are in and suspend some procedures including the use of absence management triggers against workers for the duration of this health crisis.

In these situations UNISON NW members have been quick to respond and have worked with their branches to raise and address these issues. 

The advocacy of UNISON NW branch reps and stewards in the sector has ensured that we have been able to address some of the most pressing concerns of staff, even where we don't currently have union recognition.

After discussions with UNISON, Salford City Council gave an early committment and all Salford care providers (including residential care homes) are now expected to ensure staff who are absent from work as a result of Government guidance will be paid full pay for the first 14 days, and then at 80% for a maximum total of 12 weeks period of absence on the basis of typical hours worked, rather than basic contractual hours. Other councils, including Liverpool and Knowsley are now following suit and making similar commitments.

It's actions like these that prove the value of having a strong unionised workforce that can deliver improvements to working conditions and ensure that care workers are not disadvantaged as a result of working through this crisis.

We have to ensure that these gains are maintained long after COVID-19 has abated. Maintaining adequate staffing levels across the sector is going to become a more serious problem if some of these issues are not addressed and appropriately responded to both by government and employers.

In such a fast-moving situation, it's vital that UNISON, along with our supportive MPs, sister unions and industry partners, continues to put the pressure on the government to respond to these challenges and ensure that key workers-  like our members in social care - are properly equipped and remunerated to deliver the quality services the public rely on.

So, Health Secretary, thanks for the offer of a badge but we'll take safety, protection and decent pay and conditions first!


Hassan Ortega

Community Service Group

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