“It’s really difficult to cover living costs”: the reality of working in home care

A new investigation from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that shockingly poor wages have left many care workers struggling to feed and clothe their families, brought on mental and physical health issues, and made many consider leaving their jobs.

During the pandemic, politicians and the public stood on doorsteps clapping for carers, in recognition of their vital work. But at the same time, home care workers across the country were undertaking gruelling work on low pay. Now, a new investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed that more than 60% of care worker jobs advertised in the past six months were paid less than the real living wage – a figure that amounts to more than 7,000 jobs across Britain.

The Bureau heard that shockingly poor wages had left many care workers struggling to feed and clothe their families, brought on mental and physical health issues, and made many consider leaving their jobs. The investigation even found home care workers paid less than the real living wage in 37 council areas where officials had pledged that they should earn a decent wage.

In Wales the government has recently pledged to ensure all care workers receive the real living wage, but the Bureau found nearly three quarters of home care job ads offering below that. 

Kiri Williams is 38 and lives in Blackwood, Caerphilly, in Wales. She is a self-employed carer but previously worked for companies contracted by local authorities to deliver health and social care services. Here she tells journalist Nick Dowson her own experience of working in home care. 

People wonder why they can’t get carers… they’re paid terribly, they’re treated terribly.

Care companies are really strict on pay. You get paid per call but have to electronically clock in and out – each client will have a file and you use your phone to scan a code on it when you get there and again when you leave.

If you’re only getting paid £4.75 for a half-hour call and have to leave 10 minutes early, they will dock you those 10 minutes. Go over – you also won’t get paid for that.

The most I ever got paid was £9 an hour, the least was £8.25. If you were paid that wage for one whole shift it would be different but you don’t, you get paid per call. It’s really difficult to earn enough to cover basic living costs.

Carer Kiri Williams

I have known carers who have had to hand back calls because they can’t afford petrol. Or carers who ask each other to borrow money – people have asked me, and I have had to do the same.

On the road you either get paid travel time or mileage: 17p or 20p per mile. But you’re pressured – I was given 10 minutes once for a 45-minute drive. So then I was late and they took the rest of my shift calls off me because I wouldn’t have got there on time, which meant I didn’t get paid for them. That was not unusual.

You realise the hours you have to put in to pay your bills are not possible to sustain.

I was working from 6am or 7am in the morning till 10pm at night. Your breaks were your driving time. If we had an hour’s lull, we would go to nearest car park so as not to waste petrol and have a sleep. It’s not easy to take time off – you get a day off and the companies are on the phone to you all day long begging you to cover calls.

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You can’t pay for childcare on those wages, so sometimes your kids would come with you in the car – I’ve had to do that myself. And you would hope you didn’t get spot-checked… it would depend on your supervisor whether they would say ‘don’t let me catch you again’ or would turn a blind eye.

On an average half-hour call you might get someone up and out of bed, wash them, give them breakfast and their medication. Then tidy up and make their bed, open their curtains, make them a snack and stick it in the fridge for later. Maybe empty their catheter and clean their commode.

You do all those things in half an hour and get maybe £4.50. Then you go to another call, get verbally abused and told you’re rubbish, and again, £4.50. Because of the time pressure you have to prioritise the most important things, such as medication and hygiene.

You can go to one call where someone has been in desperate need of medical attention and then go straight to the next call and have to act as though nothing has happened.

It can be a lovely, fulfilling, and important job, but it can also be emotional and stressful. In the end it all caught up with me and I ended up ill with stress, anxiety and exhaustion, and went off on the sick.

At some point a colleague of mine quit and started working for herself as a self-employed home carer; it felt like a big risk to follow her but I thought, what do I have to lose?

To read the findings in full visit The Bureau of Investigative Journalism 

Images: Jo Haycock for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism