Home Care – Zero hours contracts

Care workers are employed on zero hours contracts. There has been much criticism of these contracts in recent months and they are regarded as a bad thing, mainly by people who don’t have them. However, it’s important to distinguish between the sort of contract where a shop worker might be told that they are not needed from one day to the next and a care worker who, because of the volume of work and the staff shortage that plagues the industry,  is generally able to work as much or as little as they want; it just isn’t guaranteed.

It is virtually impossible to offer guaranteed hour contracts when there is no guaranteed work. A care agency has to organise rotas that cover individual visits which are often charged by the minute. Bearing in mind the need for travel time, paying guaranteed hours is uneconomic with the current charging structure. In the old days when home care was delivered by local authority staff, the actual cost was about £25 – £30 per hour. This was because staff had 35 hour contracts but only undertook 20-25 hours of ‘chargeable’ work ie spending time with clients. Let us by all means go back to this way of operating but it will mean 100% increase in the cost of homecare and there is neither the appetite nor the funding to pay for that.

My company experienced staff shortages in one contract and sought to overcome this by offering guaranteed hours contracts to existing staff as well as advertising for staff to take up these contracts. We had zero interest. Existing staff preferred the flexibility that zero hours gave them – if they didn’t want to work they didn’t have to – and any new recruits had no interest when they could see the advantages of zero hours. Why commit to a certain number of hours each week when you can work however many hours you want and not work if you don’t feel like it?

The objection to zero hours contracts by many politicians, commentators and other bandwagon-jumpers may be born out of ignorance or ideology, always a potent combination. I met plenty of local authority commissioners and contract managers who were convinced that people on zero hours contracts had no employment rights and weren’t entitled to holiday pay, pension, sick pay, maternity pay, paternity pay, etc. They are.

However, where zero hours contracts do lead to problems is at week-ends. All home care providers seem to experience problems at the week-end as a consequence of staff shortages. My company used to pay staff a premium for working at the week-ends. Back in the day this was double time although that has declined over the years. It is increasingly common for home care agencies not to pay a premium for week-ends for a very good reason – most local authorities insist on a flat rate charge to cover all days including week-ends and bank holidays. But without a premium people are less keen to work at the week-end (see junior doctors), although no-one seems to care much about care workers. The pressure to pay the London Living Wage (currently £9.30 per hour) tends to ignore the fact that this then becomes a flat rate Monday to Sunday. So our staff who used to earn (say) 8.25 per hour during the week and £12 on a Saturday and Sunday would now earn £9.30 per hour, which depending on the visits they did, could lead to a pay cut. So in order to pay people more they had to earn less. Hardly progress.

Many care workers are also very religious and choose not to work on a Sunday. A zero hours contract gives them the right not to work on a particular day (no complaint there) but it means the devil of a job for the agency to find people who want to work on a Sunday.

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