Theresa Shearer: Our carers are all highly skilled – so why is night work paid at a lower rate?

Carers who provide cover at night for vulnerable people are paid less. Picture: John Devlin
Carers who provide cover at night for vulnerable people are paid less. Picture: John Devlin
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In May, it was wonderful to ­celebrate the incredible achievements of people who have learning disabilities at the ­inaugural Scottish Learning Disability Awards. As chief executive of one of Scotland’s largest social care ­charities, I was thrilled to see one of the award categories specifically dedicated to recognising ‘outstanding social care practitioners’, and that the shortlist of finalists were nominated by the people they support.

Every day, social care professionals work tirelessly to provide essential support to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Personalised social care transforms lives, and has facilitated the move from ­institutional care to people living in their own homes and being active members of their communities.

Theresa Shearer, ENABLE Scotland CEO

Theresa Shearer, ENABLE Scotland CEO

Today, Scotland’s social care sector is worth £3.1billion, comprising a ­varied range of support based on individual needs.

For some, this means a few hours of daytime support to access activities in the local community. ­Others, ­particularly those with complex learning disabilities, require ­specialist 24 hour support, with ­practitioners staying in their homes overnight to provide emergency response at any hour. Without this support, many of these individuals could not continue living safely and independently.

So why do social care staff providing crucial overnight support to some of our most vulnerable citizens in their own homes get paid less than ­colleagues supporting people ­during the day?

It is not widely known outside social care circles, but the extremely ­positive introduction of the Living Wage to the sector has, thus far, only really been felt by staff who work ­daytime hours. Indeed, across the sector, staff who deliver vital overnight support to ­people who have complex learning disabilities are still only required to be paid at the lower National ­Minimum Wage.

The most-frequently quoted rationale for this longstanding pay differential is that staff providing overnight support are likely to be asleep ­during parts of the night where ­support is not required. This is why overnight support shifts have historically been casually referred to as ‘sleepover shifts’.

However, this thinking completely disregards the fact that these are highly-trained specialists equipped with the skills and knowledge required to act in an emergency. These are social care professionals who are away from their homes, on constant alert and who cannot leave the premises. As providers, it is also our responsibility to continually work with ­individuals to provide the support that they need.

As such, if a staff member found that they were regularly sleeping through their overnight shift without being required, then it would be our duty to work with the supported ­individual to determine whether ­continued overnight support is ­needed, and to replace this with alternative forms of support ­wherever appropriate.

As it stands, the current pay inequality undoubtedly disadvantages staff who are providing absolutely essential support through the night.

This, in turn, discourages new learning disability specialists from joining the social care workforce and further exacerbates the sector’s growing recruitment crisis.

In the longer term, the combined impact could be catastrophic on ­providers’ ability to recruit ­professionals to support the most vulnerable people in society – potentially triggering a regression to ­institutionalised care that we simply cannot allow.

I am pleased the Scottish Government has acknowledged this issue and committed to review the £10m funding initially allocated in the 2017/18 budget for the payment of overnight support. Indeed, the scale of the salary bill required to truly address the current inequality and pay the Living Wage for overnight support is significant. For ENABLE Scotland, the cost would be an additional £1.87m per year.

With 382 social care providers across Scotland supporting people who have a learning disability, this highlights a considerable challenge to the public purse.

At ENABLE Scotland, we believe an hour at work is an hour at work, and it is our ambition to pay all frontline staff the Living Wage for EVERY hour of work. The journey towards achieving this will not be easy, and we cannot do it alone. We can only pay our frontline social care staff using the funding we get from local authorities, and that pot is getting smaller.

The income we generate as a charity is used to support vital community projects which typically don’t receive statutory funding, and would otherwise not exist. However, if we fail to recruit and retain the best people to support individuals with complex needs, we’re jeopardising their right to live independently. We must address these challenges now and work to implement sustainable solutions.

It is my priority to liaise with commissioning local authorities and the Scottish Government to make equal pay for all hours worked a reality. The alternative of not doing so is a far scarier prospect – for the future of the social care workforce and the people we support.

Theresa Shearer is CEO of ENABLE Scotland