Care workers forced to cut short home visits or be left out of pocket | Melissa Viney

New figures show more than half of councils don’t insist that agencies pay staff for their travel between appointments

Until he was 90, Michael Robinson’s father, James, was an active man, taking the grandchildren to school and going out every day, but gradually Michael noticed his father slowing down and his mother, Pearl, repeating herself. His father had a fall in the house and stopped going out. Three years ago both parents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and it was clear they would need a lot of help. James, 100, and Pearl, 88, live in their own home in south-east London, but rely on daily visits from care workers, a service that Robinson believes is vastly overstretched. Homecare staff visit the Robinsons three times a day, helping them get up and dressed, wash, take their medication and help them get ready for bed at the end of the day. In all, Robinson’s parents receive 3.5 hours of care a day. But all too often the care workers are unable to do everything they are supposed to.

One of them, Jean Sewell, says she can have up to a dozen visits a day. They are typically half an hour’s journey apart, if travelling by public transport, or 15 minutes by car. As each of her visits is supposed to last 30 to 60 minutes, with the travel time on top, Sewell says she has to curtail some visits in order to get round to everyone to see all her clients.

“There are times when they [care workers] might not make it because they are so busy,” says Robinson. “When they do get there they’re in such a hurry that they can’t complete the time they’ve got allocated to spend with my parents, so they might cut things short.”

Like many care workers, Sewell is in a precarious financial situation. Although on the face of it, she earns a reasonable £9.15 an hour for the time she spends with care users, she receives no holiday pay and is on a zero-hours contract. And because the company she works for doesn’t pay her travel time, Sewell says in reality she takes home around £7 an hour.

Sewell’s situation is all too common. New figures published this week show that more than half of councils do not insist that their homecare providers pay travel time. According to freedom of information requests by public sector union Unison, 54% of local authorities do not make it a contractual condition that the care agencies they commission pay their care workers for the time spent travelling between visits. That means many homecare staff end up earning less than the government’s £7.83 an hour minimum wage for over-25s, rebranded in 2015 as the “national living wage”. Although the minimum hourly pay for over-25s will rise to £8.21 from April 2019, it’s still a lot less than the Living Wage Foundation’s real living wage, which is £10.55 an hour in London and £9 an hour for those working outside the capital.

Man explaining medicine to older woman
Many care workers find themselves in a precarious financial situation Photograph: Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

The Care Act 2014 requires councils to ensure care agencies pay staff the national living wage, including “appropriate remuneration for any time spent travelling between appointments”. But what constitutes an appropriate level of pay for travel is not stipulated. However, it is illegal for care workers’ overall daily pay, including travel time, to amount to less than the minimum wage.

“Many companies do not abide by minimum wage laws, and even those paid extra by councils to remunerate care workers for travel time simply do not do so,” says Matt Egan, a national officer for Unison. Even when local authorities do require providers to pay care staff for travel time, many do not check this is actually happening. “Some councils are putting it in the contract and asking care providers whether they’re complying with the requirement to pay care workers for their travel time without actually checking payslips or carrying out workforce surveys,” says Egan.

The findings underline previous research by the union last August which found that nearly two-thirds of care workers are only paid for their contact time, not the time spent travelling between appointments. Even when councils do pay travel time, it is often not enough. Many pay for just 10 minutes’ travel time, when, according to the UK Homecare Association, care workers spend 11.7 minutes per hour of their working day travelling. Homecare staff say that is a significant underestimate.

“We don’t get travel pay, none at all. Your first call is at 8 o’clock, then your second is 8.30 but the first was half an hour so you have no minutes in between,” says Sally Critchley, a care worker for private agency Careline Homecare in Tameside, Greater Manchester. “I should have finished at 2pm today and I didn’t finish until 4, but I won’t go home until I’ve done what I need to do.” She says 15-minute calls make her job even harder. “If we have 15-minute calls we have four in an hour so we have to get to four different locations. Sometimes they’re not even near each other.” Critchley says she prefers to work two hours but only be paid for one so that she get round everyone, rather than cut short her visits.

Tanya Foster, another Careline worker from the Tameside area, says it takes at least 15 minutes, and probably more, to walk between visits. Journeys by car or public transport take even longer. “In an ideal world the care calls would all be close together but they’re not,” she says. That means she and her colleagues end up being routinely late. Tameside council refused to comment on these specific claims, but did say it pays contractors for travel time. A spokesman says: “Our care workers are allocated 10.8 minutes of travel time per hour. We use smaller teams working in smaller areas to cut down on travel time.” The council also says that from April 2019, it will be paying providers £17.20 per hour and will require providers to pay care staff at least £9 per hour. In addition, it has introduced a new “support at home” model where care workers will support the individual to achieve their outcomes, not for a specified time.

A spokesman for Careline Homecare said it was investigating a complaint about care worker rotas, but couldn’t respond to the specific allegations. “The calculation of compliance with national minimum wage regulations in the care sector is far from straightforward owing to the way in which services are typically commissioned. Nevertheless, Careline has been inspected by HMRC, and voluntarily joined the Social Care Compliance Scheme in 2018 and no evidence of non-compliance has been identified.”

In south London, Paula Berger, a care worker for a private agency, earns the national minimum wage. Her job involves washing, preparing meals, cleaning and providing medicine to older people. She relies on public transport. “Almost half my day is spent travelling to different clients,” says Berger. “The company pays us only a fraction of the actual travel costs.” Her visits are 30 minutes, usually followed by a 20 to 30-minute bus journey to the next client. But because Berger says she is only paid around 40p per 30-minute bus ride: single bus fares cost £1.50, her typical take-home pay works out just £4 per hour.

Some care users are taking matters into their own hands. Maggie Derwent, who has a degenerative condition, says her care workers “would turn up late and leave early so they could make up their travel time, so they could be paid for it, so to speak”. Cleaning tasks were abandoned. So she changed her care company and now reimburses the care workers for their mileage. Her care workers need to drive, as public transport in her area of rural Sussex is inadequate. “You’re very aware they’re under pressure,” she says. “You’re always feeling a bit insecure in this climate as to what’s going to be given and what’s going to be taken away from you.”

Some local authorities are bucking the trend: Cornwall county council stipulates that all care staff are paid the Living Wage Foundation’s minimum rates, while at Newham council in east London, travel time pay is included as a contractual condition. This is monitored during visits and at quarterly meetings, and included in the annual performance review.

From April, companies will have a legal duty to list the hours their employees work. But campaigners want more regulatory and legal intervention. “We want the Care Quality Commission to be given power to inspect how local authorities commission care, for HMRC to carry out spot checks of care provider’s payroll records and, overall, for greater transparency of how care fees cover contact time, travel time, sleep-ins and assumed profit margins,” says Egan.

“I’m not aware of any specific examples [of unpaid travel time],” says Glen Garrod, President of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. But he adds that these kind of matters “should be picked up between the care workers and the organisation providing the care, and then between the care organisation and the council. And we’d also expect CQC to be playing a part in this in terms of the regulator looking at quality standards.”

“The workforce is the lifeblood of adult social care and councils hugely value the vital role care workers play, day-in day-out,” says Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board. “While resources are tight, we are clear that workers should be paid for travel time in the course of their working day.”

For now, Michael and his wife have decided they needed to employ a private care worker to put his parents to bed. “To be honest, I think they need someone there 24 hours but we can’t do that so it’s the next best thing,” says Michael.

• Some names have been changed


Melissa Viney

The GuardianTramp

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