Abused at work, cold and hungry at home: the reality for UK's care workers

Keeping the heating off at home and restricting water use is just one of the ways people like Kerry Walsh make ends meet.

The 45-year-old mother-of-two works an eye-watering 70 hours a week as a care-home manager, taking as much overtime as she can, but the cost-of-living crisis has left her on her knees.

She’s one of an army of people who carried our vulnerable through Covid but can no longer afford to keep her own home warm.

‘It’s a nightmare, the care sector is such a low-paid profession,’ Kerry tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It’s physical, emotional, nonstop and it can be draining. And I’m only just managing to keep a roof over our heads.

‘If you spoke to anyone in care, they would say they aren’t doing the job for the money. You do it because you want to help people. But without the overtime I wouldn’t be able to carry on.’

Last autumn, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt praised the ‘heroic work’ of the social care workers during the pandemic – yet the profession has been chronically underfunded for years.

With the average wage being just £9.50 an hour, a shocking 54% of carers are paid below the living wage and the sector has seen a 11% real-terms pay cut since 2016, according to Skills for Care. 

Things don’t seem to improve the longer they stay in the role either; care workers with five or more years in the sector are paid just 12p an hour more than new starters, according to The Care Workers’ Charity. Unsurprisingly the sector is now facing the biggest recruitment crisis in its history.

Kerry, from Stoke on Trent, has a 20-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter at home and often skips meals to feed the kids. She kept the heating off until December, and does everything she can – including showering at work – to save on bills. ‘I’ll sit here with two jumpers on and the duvet wrapped around me. I go to the local gym and pay £3 for swim, mainly to use the shower. Since heating costs have gone up it’s quite surprising how many you see in the facilities doing the same.’

She can’t afford to pop out for little shops. Instead, Kerry does a monthly food shop as the only economical option available. ‘Last pay day, I made five big lasagnes, cut them down into portions and froze them,’ she explains. ‘I’ll make spaghetti bolognese, fish pie, cottage pie. It’ll cost around £300 to £350 for the month. I’ve cut back on my own food too; Or if I was making sausage and mash the kids would have three or four sausages each and I probably only have one.

‘I would love to sometimes just take the kids for a meal out, or splash out on a takeaway. Or just have a day of doing nothing; sitting on the sofa. But I can’t afford to. I sometimes ask – why am I doing this?

‘I feel like I’m letting the kids down because other people are having meals out and trips away and I’m just keeping a roof over their head. I can’t save. I’m living month to month. It’s soul destroying.

‘I love my job, but my wages go in and the bills get paid, and three days later, I’m back up to my overdraft. It’s a vicious cycle.’

Kerry relies on credit provider Fair For You for her white goods; she bought a washing machine, tumble dryer, fridge freezer and vacuum on the system over the years – describing it as her saviour. But she doesn’t understand why she and her colleagues work so hard and get so little in return.

‘People like me have done vital work on the front line through the pandemic, and we deserve to be paid a decent wage. We’ve carried people through Covid and if it wasn’t for our roles, it would have been a much worse situation.’

Some care workers have reported turning their boilers off permanently or not being able to take their children shopping because they can’t afford extra items in the basket. Others are getting by on just one meal a day, according to the GMB union.

‘My staff are on minimum wage and for the job they do, the responsibility they have, it takes it’s toll. They could go and work in Aldi for £2 an hour more.’

Rachel Harrison, GMB National Secretary, says care workers are ‘overworked and underpaid’ and that they need a wage increase to a minimum of £15 an hour.

‘These are the people we expect to look after our most vulnerable relatives and friends,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Care workers do a physically tough, emotionally demanding job for a whisker above the minimum wage. It’s no wonder the sector faces a staffing black hole north of 300,000 vacancies.’

It’s not just poverty pay, it’s unreliable and vulnerable employment. One in four care workers are on a zero-hours contract, according to Unison, and shift rotas are tight and demanding. A shocking three in ten care workers have been threatened or attacked, like Sherifa McPherson, who faces abuse when she goes to work, and can’t afford to heat her house when she gets home.

35-year-old Sherifa, a health care assistant at Lewisham Hospital, earns minimum wage. She’s done all she can to keep the costs down, but has found the winter unbearably cold.

‘It’s hard work – tiring and demanding – and you’re getting paid so little. It’s not fair. We’re doing the same job as nurses a lot of the time and getting the least money. Sometimes, you’re looking after maybe 11 patients on your own. They can be demanding and abusive, and sometimes you get hurt; it’s a lot to bear,’ the mum tells Metro.co.uk.

‘People get confused and aggressive and they lash out.The worst bit is when they are racist – I hear: “I don’t want you to come near me because you’re Black. Just go back to your own country”. I know they may be elderly or confused but that really gets to me.

‘When you’ve had a tough day like that, you just want to go home and have a hot bath or put the heating on – and you can’t.’

Sherifa has cut every conceivable cost. She is grateful to Lewisham Plus Credit Union who have helped her furnish her London house where she lives with her three kids, but she has had to borrow butter, sugar and essentials from neighbours, and often goes without. She relies on food bank vouchers, but feels self-conscious and tries to avoid taking free food. 

‘I keep the heating off. I can’t put the gas on when I’m out of money, so the house gets so cold,’ she explains. ‘Even when it was snowing, I put blankets at the door to keep the cold from coming in. We put an electric heater on in the bedroom and stayed in that room in our clothes and dressing gowns.

‘The kids were crying and asking why it was inside and still cold. But what can I do? I can’t do any more shifts as I can’t afford the childcare. I’m stressed and crying inside, but I don’t want the kids to see. I’m working hard, so why is it so difficult to get by?’

A quarter of care workers were already living in poverty before the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, and the Care Workers Charity is seeing unprecedented demand for its support.

Karolina Gerlich, CEO, says: ‘It’s been crisis after crisis for care workers in the UK. Demand for our financial support is higher than it’s ever been, with most applicants saying that their wages barely cover rent and bills.

‘It is unacceptable that care worker pay is always benchmarked by the government to the minimum wage and it’s no wonder that many of them feel forced to leave the jobs they love to get better paid work in supermarkets.

‘This increases unmet need in the care system, meaning that people can’t get the care they deserve and putting lives at risk. Vastly underpaid care workers going to work on empty stomachs cannot be expected to deliver decent care.’

Zoe Smith counts herself as one of the lucky ones. She provides end-of-life care to children in homes and hospitals around Walsall on a zero-hours contract, and she takes home just £12.50 an hour.

After her 12-hour shift, she feels fortunate to return to a house, but it is badly in need of repair, with bare plaster on some walls, wallpaper peeling off others.

Zoe and her husband are cutting every available expense. ‘I get paid and then I have all the childcare bills and everything go out the next day so that I know exactly how much I’ve got in the bank,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘After bills and food shopping, I have about £25 a week for extras.’

Her plans to renovate their post-war council house are on hold as they can’t remortgage to pay for it. It means the cupboards in the kitchen aren’t properly fixed to the walls and it looks a mess. The kitchen is ‘old, beige and falling apart’, says Zoe.

‘The living room is still just plaster but it’s okay because we’ve still got a living room,’ she adds. ‘So we are very privileged compared to some people. But carers shouldn’t be eating from food banks before people realise there’s an issue.

‘When people are sharing tips online about using the slow cooker to boil water all day to have cups of tea so they don’t have to put the kettle on – there’s a problem. We shouldn’t be rationing food as if we’re living in a war.

‘Our work has always been a horribly paid job, but nobody should have to work full time just to scrape by.’

Do you need support during the cost-of-living crisis?

Community finance providers are coming together to make sure people across the UK are aware of the support they can provide during the cost-of-living crisis – find out more at FindYourCreditUnion.co.uk and FindingFinance.org.uk.

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