Principles are great. One can agree with a principle – and defend it staunchly – without having the frankly tiresome necessity of having to translate word into deed. In this respect agreeing with a principle is akin to promising something, whilst crossing your fingers behind your back. Same goes for ethics. And morals. You fully believe in it when you say it, but once the words have escaped your mouth, reality has a habit of proving itself very disagreeable. One can make all the right sounding noise such that you seem, at first impression a good egg.
But if one applies the words into deeds maxim however….
A fine example of this took place on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 29th of October. (forward it to 1:50:14, or you can trust me to give you the précis.) In the interview, both David Pearson, President of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, and Colin Angel, Policy Director of the U.K. Home Care Association – essentially representing the employers and the employed – both agreed with the principle that workers should be paid the minimum wage, but given the nature care work regrettably, it wasn’t always possible to pay them for their entire shift, only for the hours actually worked. There was also some deft buck passing with Pearson explaining that care was bought and provided in allocated blocks of time and therefore it wasn’t possible to pay travelling expenses. They could only spend what the budget allowed and cuts to budgets have meant that provision of care had been prioritised. The interviewer pointed out the rather glaringly obvious fact that paying people only for the work they actually did, and not for the totality of their working day, meant a substantial reduction in pay.
This state of affairs has had a practical impact upon me; my previous care agency was the preferred provider of my local council. In order to save money they too didn’t pay for travelling between shifts, and as you know public transport is a highly reliable way of getting from A to B. When I complained to a carer that she was massively late for her evening shift with me one evening, she showed me her rota. The end time of the previous shift some distance away was also the start time of her shift with me. Was she expected to have mastered the art of time travel and get from one part of London to another instantaneously? I was put in mind of this when the manager of my present care agency came for a review of my needs the other day. He mentioned in passing that he was experiencing difficulties in getting suitably competent staff. Yes, he had a plethora of bright young things that had freshly graduated from university with qualifications and a belief that by being positive, they could change the world.
But such optimism cut no ice with their ‘clients’ who by dint of being ‘clients’ in the first place, had been hit repeatedly by the arrows of outrageous fortune. And their age and background was, I observed, hardly that of the people they were meant to support. (For instance ALL of my support workers have been much younger than me, some worryingly so. Meeting them for the first time, to see if you like them is like speed dating. Except without the potential for sex, of course. They make all the right noises (oh you smutty reader!), are unfailingly polite and are keen, to the point of sycophancy, to agree with pretty much everything I say. Oh the fun an outrageous comment delivered deadpan can have!)
As he was lamenting this state of affairs, in such a way that one might be forgiven for thinking that recruitment was wholly out of his control I suggested that a presentation where one graph showed the demographic of the clients over which was layered a graph showing the demographic of the employees might focus the minds of more senior staff. Perish the notion that not paying travelling time, coupled with a low hourly rate, might in some way have any bearing on the type of candidates they attract. As I was thinking this, I remembered a conversation I’d had a week earlier with Julie, my support worker, in which she said that she hadn’t had a pay rise in four years. And that her partner had been looking on Gumtree and had spotted an advertisement for the agency offering new starters a higher hourly rate. She was idly speculating that she might leave, wait a few months and then rejoin.
This got me thinking. Firstly, that if your staff never meet, then they can’t organise themselves to press for a pay rise. And second, I calculated that if you multiplied the minimum hourly shift they accept hours by a conservative number of clients, and then multiply that number by the weeks in the year and then multiply this by the management fee, the resulting number was staggering. Someone somewhere is making a lot of money; unfortunately it isn’t the support workers who actually do the work. I was forcibly reminded of this only today, when I was asking my other support worker Mathew, about any extra payments for Christmas working only to discover that permanent staff qualify for enhanced pay at Christmas or weekends. To no ones surprise permanent applies exclusively to office staff.
As my support workers don’t get paid if I give advanced notification of a holiday – they only get paid if I cancel a shift within twenty-four hours of the shift starting – naturally whenever I go away I let my support workers know in good time and I cancel each shift so they get paid. I was not surprised to learn that this isn’t a common practice, because to me, not to ask the question which in this case is ‘what happens to you when I cancel?’ is no excuse. You can’t claim ignorance, if you can’t be bothered to ascertain what the consequence of your action might be. This gave rise to a situation where a support worker that had benefited repeatedly from this largesse got promoted to the office and at the very next review meeting I was instructed that this practice must come to an end. Talk about pulling the ladder up!
The explanation given severely tested my ability not to burst out laughing, for it was claimed the support workers wanted to work their shifts and were disappointed if they couldn’t. Mmmm, it’s a tough one….either one gets paid and can do whatever they want with their day or one can go to work, which one would you choose?
Next time……..never mind the rise in the ‘living’ wage being harmful to business, what about being harmful to those in the business of living……?