'The staff are at breaking point'

The north unitary council's adult social care team which looks after vulnerable adults is in crisis

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By Sarah Ward

Carers at a local authority home care service who are working extra long shifts for minimum wage say they can’t go on much longer.

North Northamptonshire Council’s home care service supporting vulnerable young adults in the area currently has more than 30 vacancies, which means staff are having to do excessive overtime and back-to-back shifts to look after their customers.

The group has now called on union Unison to negotiate with the new local authority and says the service would not be able to function at all and fulfil its statutory duties unless they were doing the extra shifts. Currently the team is down by around a third of what it should be.

Many staff are currently paid the minimum wage £8.91 per hour. The authority does not give its staff nationally agreed pay and conditions, unlike a number of other councils.

Care staff say they feel taken advantage of after having worked all through the pandemic and putting themselves and their families at risk to go into vulnerable people’s homes, some of whom were Covid positive. They estimate about 70 per cent of staff have contracted the virus since the pandemic began.

Speaking to NN Journal yesterday, two staff members who have more than 25 years of service between them, said the situation was the worst it had ever been and many were at breaking point. Staff are regularly working 7am to 11pm to cover duties.

One carer, who has worked for service for more than 15 years, said:

“I never thought it could get this bad - it’s just awful. 

“It is affecting our lives and we are going to burnout. The service has never been fully staffed but now the vacancy situation is horrendous and we can’t go on like we are for much longer.

“Since Covid the working conditions have been exposed - many people have left because they were scared about what they were being asked to do. While many were able to work from home we have been going into homes and putting ourselves and our families at risk.

“But we have stayed because we care about the people we look after, we don’t want to let them down. Some people I have looked after since I first started the job.

“For some, we are the only person they have. We do the extra hours and are plugging the gap because we could not sleep at night if we knew someone had gone without their medication or having their pads changed. But we can’t keep on doing what we have been doing.”

She added:

“We also have lots of responsibilities, if we do something wrong, we are liable. So why would someone currently take on a job here, at minimum wage, when they could get a less responsible job in a supermarket for more money? Morrisons pays £10.30 an hour and I think Asda pays £10.15”.

The team, which is based within council premises in Corby and Wellingborough, say there are more than 80 customers altogether. The full staff team should sit at around 80 staff. They look after people with disabilities and learning difficulties, and help with every aspect of their life from doing paperwork, collecting medication, accompanying to hospital appointments and giving end of life care.

A particular annoyance was when the council’s chief executive Rob Bridge recently emailed staff in his weekly newsletter to say he was looking forward to his summer break and going on a day trip with his children.

The carer said:

“That really upset the whole team. Because of the amount of work we have been doing, I have not seen my kids hardly at all this summer holiday. They are used to it now, but this is really affecting our lives.”

The pair said there are three different sets of pay and conditions across the team, which depend on when people joined.

The service was run by the former county council (which went bankrupt in 2018) and then moved across to the council’s private company Olympus Care before moving back in-house. The new authority was created in April this year in a bid to end the problems of the former county council, but many fear the same problems remain and the new authorities could at some point run out of cash again unless the government increases funding to local government.

The staff want an uplift in wages, not only to help their own financial situations but to enable the authority to recruit more staff.

Unison says it is a ‘crisis situation’ for its members working in this service but is hopeful a resolution can be reached as the authority has been ‘responsive’.

Unison North Northants local government assistant branch secretary Yolande Morgan said:

“The staff are at breaking point. There are 32 full-time vacancies and they can’t even get agency staff as the pay is too low. If the staff didn’t do overtime, the service would collapse tomorrow.

“This can’t continue. These are the heroes who have worked in people’s homes throughout the pandemic, putting their health and that of their families at risk because they love their jobs.

“They continue to put their own well-being on the line to ensure the level of care service users need isn’t compromised. Staff have told us they’re on their knees and need help now.

“Unison is currently in productive discussions with the council and it’s hoped there will be a positive resolution.

“This service provides care to the most vulnerable in our community and mustn’t be allowed to fail.”

In an email update sent last week to all staff, the council’s chief executive said following recruitment concerns in adult social care the director in charge David Watts had been out on site visits and is now working with the assistant directors and service managers to work quickly to develop solutions for those concerns. 

It said:

“Being a new council, we are absolutely committed to understanding how all our services are functioning and will act as swiftly as possible when matters are brought to our attention.”

Today the council gave NN Journal to statements.

David Watts said: I have personally been working closely with Unison and the services involved to better understand the concerns that have been raised regarding recruitment and retention in provider services and the impact on our staff since the services transferred into the new council in April 2021.

“The rates that are paid to staff in these services were in place prior to the services transferring across from Northamptonshire County Council. We are determined to address the historic pay matters as a new council but in doing so have to ensure that it is financially possible to do so both in the short and medium term. We will continue to work productively with the union and aim to bring forward proposals to address this matter as swiftly as possible.

Executive Member, Adults, Health and Wellbeing Cllr Helen Harrison said:

“The role our dedicated staff play in providing essential support to people to gain and maintain independence is of paramount importance. The executive of the council are keen to understand the proposals that will be brought forward to hopefully address the concerns and are committed to ensuring that as a council we demonstrate how we value our staff and address concerns that are raised, quickly and efficiently.”

The issues within the care sector are long running and being felt on a national level. After many years of promises, the Conservative government has still not brought forward a new policy on how adult social care will be funded in the future.

Last month we reported on how some care workers in our county are struggling to make ends meet. Unison is campaigning for staff to be paid the real living wage of £9.50. Read the report here

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