We need to stop treating care workers like disposable labour

I worked as a homecare worker for about 18 months.

I stopped because I couldn’t afford to do it anymore.

Homecare earned me only four or five pounds an hour – well below minimum wage – because my company wouldn’t pay me for the time it took to travel between service users.

On a typical day I’d visit people to care for them from 6:30am until lunchtime.  On an average day I’d spend four and a half hours in people’s home and over two hours travelling between them – but I’d only be paid for the time spent in people’s homes.

Read the full blog from an anonymous homecare worker on Left Foot Forward. 

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UNISON has empowered me to speak up

Polly Smith, homecare worker

Once I was in a care home and a man took out a knife. The non-trade union members didn’t act on it – they thought if they told anyone about it, managers would think they were complaining and they’d lose their jobs. But I thought that there must be a reason behind the behaviour, and I rang the office and told them about it.

I work in homecare now as part of a re-enablement programme, which means we try to get people to regain independence so they can do things for themselves.

The oldest person I went to visit was 104 at the time; she did everything for herself. She had trouble bending over, but she could boil an egg. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you can’t do things for yourself.

Nowadays I see a lot of harm being done. Employers are getting away with a lot and non-union members are letting them. For example, not letting homecare workers have breaks: some start work at 6.30am and finish at 10pm.

It doesn’t have to be like that – it leads to stress and sickness. You’ve got to stand up for yourself, and unions help you do that. Unions are insurance (with a small ‘i’); if you want assistance, if you want advice, the union can do that for you.

Homecare workers have a lot more responsibility than people give them credit for. People think homecare workers are just ‘the help’ who go in and do a bit of cleaning, but we can see when people are getting really ill. We see people once, maybe four times, a day so we notice the change in people – in a way doctors can’t.

The saddest thing is the impact of the cuts. For example, in the past someone who was incontinent was given pads and an inco sheet (which absorbs urine) for their bed .

Now they only get one or the other, so I’ll go in to see people in the morning and their pads are soaked, their beds are soaked, their mattress, even the floor. If they’d had an inco sheet it would have absorbed it.

In the end, it turned out the man with the knife was on the wrong medication. They only realised because I rang up. It was changed and he was completely different; he didn’t hurt anyone, or himself.

That’s what being in a trade union does – it empowers you to challenge things.

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“I am so grateful for the on-going help mum and I are having now”

At the end of November last year, my daughter who lives in Australia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within eight days she was having surgery and desperately needing to see her mum…me. Now at the time I was looking after my mum who has dementia, as best I can… not easy working full time, but mum can still be at home on her own just now with help…she forgets whether she’s eaten, taken her meds…what she did five minutes ago…or what you said…so she just needs prompting or helping to heat a meal etc.

I rang my doctors surgery and made an appointment asap, and the memory clinic, explaining that I needed help with my mum, why, and what I needed. They were great, a week later I was able to go support my daughter in Perth while she recovered from surgery and prepared herself for chemo… and my lovely mum even more confused but in good hands was looked after and supported while I was away.

I could not have done that without the help they gave, my daughter is doing well, and am so grateful for the on-going help mum and I are having now. At this stage we are coping. Thank you.

 – Anonymous

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“I will never cease to be grateful to her, and those like her”

My mother needed homecare for the last few years of her life (she died in 2011 aged 96) and we paid £9 per half hour to the council for an am and a pm visit each day, to ensure she could wash and dress, had eaten and taken her medication. The care was outsourced to a private company.

One of the morning carers, Joan, was turned 70 herself, and helped mum wash, dress, then rushed round, loaded soiled sheets into the washing machine and hung them to dry the next morning, sorted out breakfast, supervised mum taking her meds and often prepared a sandwich for her lunch as well.

This outstanding, hardworking and very caring woman went more than the extra mile.

However because the evening visits were 6.00pm and mum didn’t want to go to bed then, some of the evening carers used to just check she’d taken her meds and asked did she mind if they went on to their next visit, as they had so many more to get through, and some clients needed bathing and putting to bed.

Mum always felt sorry for them and said she didn’t mind. Occasionally they were only there five minutes, or didn’t turn up at all. Some of them had poor spoken English, and a ninety year old woman, hard of hearing, had a real problem with this.

There is no consistency, no standards adhered to and I suspect the pay is so poor, that the job doesn’t attract many people who are prepared to work their socks off like Joan.

She found my mum very poorly one morning, after she hadn’t been to bed at all, and she took care of her until the ambulance came.

Again, she did more than her brief, and I will never cease to be grateful to her, and those like her. They are thin on the ground.

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“travel time is always taken off our rotas so they can cram more calls in”

I work for a large homecare provider. We are always short staffed, so travel time is always taken off our rotas so they can cram more calls in. When we complain the answer is to cut the times of the call down. 

I do not think it right, if a client is paying for 30 minutes care and only getting 15 it is wrong. When new care workers start they should have a week’s training,  then they should have two week shadowing. They are lucky if they four or five days.  We complain to the office there is always an excuse. Complain too much they can cut my hours which I cannot afford.  It is a zero hour contract which should be banned.  

– Eleanor, homecare worker

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