Half of social workers employed in independent care homes would earn more if they took an entry-level job in a supermarket, according to new research into a staffing crisis that has left thousands of vulnerable people suffering from inadequate care.

In June, nearly 400,000 healthcare workers earned less than the minimum wage paid at most major supermarket chains, while a third of workers were reported to have received an immediate 6.3% pay rise, plus benefits social, moving to higher-paying supermarkets, according to research from the King’s Fund health think tank.

There are around 165,000 vacancies in the social care workforce in England and this week the Guardian revealed that inspectors have found staff shortages to be one of the main reasons for inadequate care in dozens of homes, including people left in their rooms 24 hours a day, refused showers and left to soak in their own urine. Many operators depend on funding from local authorities which has not increased in line with inflation and therefore has not been able to raise salaries. Staff suffering from burnout after the Covid-19 pandemic swept through nursing homes also resigned to take on less stressful, better-paying jobs at places like Amazon, as well as hotels and supermarkets.

MPs who gathered evidence on the crisis this summer heard care home managers say: ‘I’m afraid to hear Aldi opening nearby because I know I’m going to lose staff.’

The government this month announced a task force to consider the recruitment of international staff in critical roles, although no final decision has been made on the scale of a recruitment drive or even on the opportunity to proceed.

“Wages are a big reason for the social workforce crisis,” said Simon Bottery, senior social care researcher at the King’s Fund. “There has been no progress in delivering…a strategy [on pay progression and professional development] in adult social care and no sign that the government is seriously interested in developing one. The government’s impact statement on its adult welfare reform program has an entire chapter on the workforce that manages to avoid even once using the word ‘pay’.

He said: “For the foreseeable future, the opening of a new Aldi should be good news for local shoppers, but bad news for the local social services sector and the people who use its services.”

For social care, the minimum rate for staff over the age of 23 in June 2022 was £9.50 – the statutory minimum set by the ‘National Living Wage’. It has been estimated that around 50% of social workers earn less than 30p of the national living wage level. In June 2022, nine of the 10 largest supermarkets were paying more than this, according to research from the King’s Fund.

It represents a reversal over the past decade. In 2012-13, retail assistants were on average paid 16p less per hour than social workers. But in 2020-21 they were paid 21p an hour more.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘We appreciate the enormous contribution to society that social workers make day in and day out. That’s why we’re providing at least £500m towards workforce development, training and wellbeing. It is part of an additional £5.4billion investment in adult care through the Health and Care Tax, which will allow us to pursue a comprehensive agenda of reform. Local authorities work with private care providers to determine tariffs, which must take labor costs into account, based on local market conditions. April’s rise in the National Living Wage means a full-time care worker on the NLW will see their annual earnings rise by more than £1,000 this year.


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