A NEW investigation has found home care workers across the UK – including in Cheshire West and Chester – are being paid less than the real living wage (RLW), despite many councils' explicit pledge to make sure they are paid at that level.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been encouraged to clap for our carers.

And three-quarters of people polled by the Fawcett Society charity said they think home care workers – those employed to go into vulnerable people's homes to support them – should get the RLW.

But research from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) found thousands of jobs advertised below £9.50 per hour (or £10.85 per hour in London) in 189 of the 205 local authorities across Britain which have responsibility for social care.

And 43 of those local authorities are fully signed up to Unison's ethical care charter, in which they commit to paying home care workers at least the living wage.

But TBIJ found that 37 out of those 43 councils appear to be failing to ensure the pledge is enacted.

The King's Fund think tank estimates almost 75 per cent of home care to be council-commissioned)

Councils' paperwork shows some authorities would need to find millions more in their budgets to honour the pledge.

TBIJ compiled an extensive list of thousands of home care providers commissioned through local authorities and trawled through job advertisement data from reed.co.uk between October 2020 and April 2021. An analysis found that many providers were advertising below the RLW in areas signed up to the charter.

For Cheshire West and Chester, 12 job adverts were found where the minimum wage was lower than £9.50 per hour, with the lowest two wages each at £8.72 per hour, for care workers in the Frodsham or Winsford areas.

Two others were advertised as care workers in Frodsham and Winsford at £8.91 per hour. All four were under the employer name of Human Support Group.

Two care assistant roles for Starcare Ltd were advertised for a minimum wage of £9 per hour, one for Chester and one for Winsford. However, the maximum salary for that role was above the RLW, at £9.80 per hour.

Finally, six care assistant job adverts were placed by C&C Healthcare – Sage Care for Ellesmere Port, advertising an hourly wage of £9.30.

Data from Skills for Care also showed that, for home care and care worker jobs in the Cheshire West and Chester area, 46.6 per cent leave the job within a year (higher than the UK average), and 8.2 per cent of roles were unfilled at the time of the survey (lower than the UK average).

A total of 38 per cent were on zero-hour contracts.

Care workers said low pay for gruelling work had left many of them struggling to feed and clothe their families, brought on mental and physical health issues, and made many of them consider leaving their jobs.

One care worker told TBIJ: “The only way to cover your living costs in this profession is by sacrificing your own health and your family to work ridiculous hours.”

Justina (not her real name) visits about a dozen elderly and people with mental health issues every day.

She earns £9.20 an hour. The vast majority of the people she looks after have their care funded by the local authority.

Her client list used to be split between three people, but now is covered by two, meaning she sometimes has to cut visits to vulnerable people short to fit everyone in.

She said watching people clap for carers while she struggled had frustrated her. “It was absolutely pathetic. I love my job but I told my boss if anything else comes up I’ll have to leave, because it is just so unappreciated… I’d go and sort packages if I have to. At one point I was working three jobs.”

A single mother, Justina said she struggled to afford clothes for her two children, let alone a tablet or computer, which caused problems when lockdown forced schools to close.

She had to wake up at 4am to access her children's set classwork on to her mobile before copying it out by hand on to paper for them - all before setting off for a shift that could be up to 15 hours long.

She was recently injured on the job but, because her work has no occupational sick pay, her family has to survive on £96.35 a week.

It is dire enough that she has been tempted to return to work, even if it means exacerbating her injury. “I was only thinking about the money that I would lose. You know, I wouldn't care if I became crippled for the rest of my life if there is money coming into my bank account,” she said.

Justina is not the only one for whom care work has taken a heavy toll. One home care worker told TBIJ that the stresses of the job meant many of her colleagues were on antidepressants. Another said the long hours and low pay had left her struggling with exhaustion, anxiety and depression.

A spokesperson from Cheshire West and Chester Council said: "Cheshire West and Chester undertook at cost of care exercise on care at home provision in 2019. The exercise was based on paying contracted care providers an hourly rate which would allow them to pay staff the local living wage.

"A new range of fees paid to care at home providers was implemented in 2020 as part of the recommissioning of care at home provision.

"The new fees are uplifted annually to reflect any increase in the local living wage. The new fees also recognise and respond to the locational challenges of provision across our borough – rural versus urban care at home provision.

"Providers contracted with Cheshire West and Chester are required to pay care staff working on these contracts the local living wage and above.

"This is a requisite part of the tender application and compliance with this requirement is monitored as part of providers annual contract review. If a provider is found to be paying below the living wage then we will work with that provider to understand the reasons why and may take action under the contract where required to ensure a living wage is delivered."

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: "Social care is a deeply flawed system in urgent need of reform. The blame for all that is wrong must be laid solely at the government's door.

"Ministers have failed to fund the system or make the necessary reform and so now care is in the grip of a damaging crisis.

"With the sector starved of resources, many councils are forced to commission care at bargain basement rates, resulting in poverty pay for highly skilled and dedicated staff.

"But despite the odds being stacked against them, many local authorities have tried to do the right thing by getting on board with our ethical care charter.

"If some councils don't appear to be meeting their charter commitments, UNISON will investigate and try to iron out what's been going wrong.

"But that's not to let the government off the hook. Ministers must stop with the feet-dragging and share their plans for the changes that have long been promised.

"Top of the list should be the cash to lift thousands of care staff - who've more than proved their worth during the pandemic - on to the real living wage.

"A proper pay rise would at a stroke make care a more attractive career option and help fill the thousands of vacancies currently putting such pressure on services, staff and the vulnerable."