I didn’t plan to become a care worker. My work as a designer had dried up and I needed a job. I walked into a care work agency thinking that I could give it a try and work in a sector that has real meaning – to care for others. It turned out I was right, and I loved the work from day one.
I started off working in people’s homes, helping to keep them living independently and with dignity. It ranged from getting people dressed and making the bed, to sorting breakfast, to personal care. Even that hour or two can be transformative for a person, and I loved bringing my kindness and sensitivity to the work.
But care work and care workers are in crisis. My zero-hours contract guarantees me no hours; it is entirely at the discretion of my employers. Sometimes it’s ten hours that week, sometimes 20, sometimes just five. At the agency, my time in between home visits was unpaid, as was the time travelling between appointments. When I called in sick, the attitude from my employers has usually been annoyance because I’ve caused them a problem. Sometimes it took time for my hours to return to normal after I had been off.
Almost all the in-work training I have ever done has been on an app, with no human contact or feedback for such a crucial role. I have had new colleagues start with all the right qualities and skills, but who have not been given vital information for doing the job. For example, how to feed someone on a pureed food diet or how to approach someone with dementia who could be violent or abusive. These can lead to traumatic experiences for clients and staff when something goes wrong.
A recent report found that care workers earned less than other supposedly “unskilled” workers in supermarkets. I have discussed this dilemma with colleagues, and while the satisfaction and unique experience of care work keeps me going, it is not the same for most people.
In reality, there is no real care career path unless you want to open a care agency and take up more of an office role. Care work could be a route into nursing or social work, but without the encouragement of employers it just remains a low-paid job. Everything about the conditions for care workers suggests, “We don’t appreciate you at all.” Nor are staff empowered to challenge those conditions for fear of having our hours cut.
Now, I work in a high-end residential care home. While the fixtures and decor may be luxury, the staff are paid the same as any other care work – despite our clients being charged a luxury rate to live there. We are sometimes so short-staffed that people have long waits for someone to change their incontinence pads, which is a humiliating and undignified experience for them.
If care workers feel unvalued, are badly paid and badly treated, this affects the people we work with. It’s not like a bad cup of coffee – it can have a profound impact on those in care, and could be as simple as being 30 minutes late to your appointment.
When I walked into that agency nearly three years ago, my other option had been to get work in a cafe. Even though I know how important care work is, it is sad to think that working in a cafe probably would have been better for me financially.
The author is a care worker who lives in London.
[See also: Clive Betts: “We need billions for adult social care”]