Record number of care workers at risk of being made homeless

Exclusive: Charity triples grants to employees, warning new tax means they will ‘pay for doing their job of caring for others’

Jane Dalton
Friday 11 February 2022 19:01 GMT
Most carers earn the national living wage
Most carers earn the national living wage (AFP via Getty Images)

A record number of care workers are facing homelessness as they struggle with low pay and the cost-of-living crisis, figures reveal.

Many are forced to switch off their heating at home to save money, and others rely on universal credit (UC) or handouts from family members, despite working full-time, The Independent has learnt.

And the hardship will only worsen this year as British households facing the worst squeeze on record, thanks to rising energy bills, inflation and interest rates, as well as the new health and social care levy, experts warn.

The UK’s 1.6 million care staff are among the lowest paid employees, with average salaries of around £15,000, and putting in hours that leave them no time to top up their incomes with outside work, campaigners say.

Together with tax changes, such as the personal allowance freeze, it means increasing numbers are struggling to keep up with rent or mortgage payments.

The Care Workers’ Charity (CWC) has had to give out spiralling sums to employees in the sector to save them from eviction.

Last year the charity, which is funded by wealthy donors, paid out nearly three times as much as the year before to prevent homelessness – £86,546 – to carers employed by care homes, local authorities and agencies.

The total of grants given in 2020 itself was also nearly triple that given to carers in 2019 to enable them to keep a roof over their heads.

And the average amount awarded to individuals to stave off eviction rose by 8 per cent last year.

The charity, which awards one-off grants to struggling carers who successfully apply, warned that workers looking after elderly and vulnerable people were increasingly falling into poverty.

It said the new health and social care tax, due to start in April, meant that carers, most of whom are on the national living wage, were “in effect paying for doing their job of caring for others”.

Analysts from social policy company Policy in Practice have calculated that carers will lose out by at least £1,035 a year thanks to the new health and social care levy and the removal of the UC uplift combined.

Most care workers receive the national living wage of £8.91 an hour, and, according to the GMB Union, one in 10 receives benefits. Although the living wage will rise in April, it’s not expected to be enough to meet the rise in living costs.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said this month that spiralling energy prices were likely to hit lower income households disproportionately, as they spend a higher percentage of their income on utility bills and are more likely to be in fuel poverty.

Karolina Gerlich, executive director of CWC, told The Independent its grants had saved dozens of care workers from becoming homeless.

“The need is absolutely huge,” she said. “Care workers are givers, not takers, and often say someone else needs help more. Most only apply to us when they’re absolutely desperate.”

Any care employee in financial difficulty may apply to the charity. In both 2020 and last year, it gave out record numbers of grants for all types of living costs, not just eviction-prevention – including basic items such as replacement washing machines – since it was launched in 2009.

“In 2020 we paid out £2.2m – an increase of 1,150 per cent in grant-giving activities compared to the previous year,” said Ms Gerlich. “Last year our average grant for all quarters, not just evictions, was around £500.”

Research in September found social care staff were among the most financially insecure of low-paid workers. Think tank the Royal Society For the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) said care employees were more likely to be “trapped in insecure housing” or not “financially resilient”.

And anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) says people who were in poverty before the pandemic have suffered the most financial damage during the crisis.

In 2019, 23 carers received £10,534 in all towards their housing bills from the CWC. But in 2020, 44 people received £29,910 in total housing grants, figures that jumped last year to 110 carers sharing £86,546.

Ms Gerlich said in many cases it took a small event such as two weeks off sick for workers to fall into debt that they could not pay off, which became a vicious circle, eventually leaving people threatened with eviction, she said – a much more common scenario during the pandemic.

“Social care is incredibly important because care workers improve lives so have a huge responsibility. I can’t think of a more important job.

“Wellbeing of a care worker is very closely linked to the quality of care they deliver. If you’re not feeling well or are hungry or worried about paying your bills - these things distract from our ability to do our best,” she said.

“It’s in society’s interests for workers to be well, well paid and well looked after.”

Sabina Younis, 31, from Leeds, fell into arrears on her rent and energy bills after being dismissed from her job in a care home when she became too sick to work with long Covid – developed after she was infected through a lack of personal protective equipment last year.

“When Covid hit, I gave up my annual leave to do the job I loved passionately. I’d never claimed benefits. If I wasn’t too sick to work, I’d work day and night to pay off my debts,” she said.

Initially she lived off just sick pay, and although she now receives universal credit, most of it goes towards her arrears, leaving her with next to nothing to live on.

Ms Younis received a £1,500 grant, which went towards reducing her rent and council tax arrears. But she said: “I’m still behind on my rent by £1,700. I can’t afford groceries – I live off my sister,” she said.

“I have a hospital blanket as a curtain and pieces of carpet on the floor. My flat is so cold. When my sick pay stops, I have no idea what I will do.”

A 47-year-old care assistant in northwest England, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Independent she was forced to work night shifts and weekends, when the pay rate is slightly higher, just to pay her bills. Even then, she needed small subsidies from her mother, a pensioner, and a £500 grant from the charity to avoid eviction after splitting up with her husband.

“Without those I couldn’t have paid the two months’ rent I owed,” she said.

“But I’m lucky – a lot of girls are worse off than me because they don’t have the night working enhancement. I know some who go without gas and electricity for a couple of days.

“I have basic, simple meals and make them last two days. Other girls have set meals they can’t afford to deviate from.

“The charity are amazing for the help they give.”

The care workers agreed with Ms Gerlich that the financial squeeze was likely to worsen with rising inflation and as low-paid workers will be hit hard by the new health and social care levy.

The JRF says a third of low-income households – 3.8 million – are behind on home payments.

The CWC said that with the average salary in social care amounting to far lower than £24,752 – partly because they are more likely to work part-time – it was highly likely that its workforce was well represented in the arrears statistics.

With the cost of living rocketing, there are fears of an exodus from the care profession as employees seek better paid work, intensifying widespread staff shortages.

Already, council care chiefs have warned that “excruciatingly painful choices are being made about who gets support and how much” because of a growing gap between their resources and the needs of older and disabled people.

Jane Townson, chief executive of the Homecare Association, the membership body for homecare providers, blamed poor pay and terms and conditions on long-term lack of investment by central government, together with the rising cost of living.

“Care staff are leaving in droves for jobs in sectors such as retail and hospitality, where pay and other working conditions are better. Those remaining are exhausted after working continuously throughout the pandemic and covering extra shifts,” she said.

“Many care workers love their roles as they can make a real positive difference to people’s lives, and the relationships that develop between those giving and receiving care are invaluable. But we all have to earn enough to live and, for some, this is becoming an increasing struggle.

“We call on the government to invest adequately in homecare and our workforce so that we can all live well at home and flourish in our communities.”

The charity did a brilliant job, Ms Townson said.

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: “We ensure that the social care system is funded so that providers can pay the national minimum and national living wages to social care workers. The lowest paid care workers will benefit from a 6.6 per cent increase in the national living wage from April 2022.”

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