At the start of the pandemic, we put out a survey, and the first issue that was highlighted was about workers who were still in their probationary period. We have such a high turnover in care that there are always lots of members in this stage of their employment, and usually, they are entitled to no sick pay at all. In the survey, we also asked everyone about their vulnerabilities—if they were pregnant or had underlying health problems, for example. Once we had identified those who were most at risk, we took that forward and fought for furlough for anyone who felt particularly vulnerable to the virus. In the UK, businesses affected by the coronavirus can apply to the government to furlough their workers, because the government has agreed to pay 80% of employee wages up to £2,500 a month per worker until at least June 2020. It is up to employers whether they cover the remaining 20% of furloughed workers’ wages, and this is a key site of struggle for many workers.
We are already many steps ahead of other care providers because we have formal recognition for our union. We have a procedure to go to management via a Joint Negotiating Committee, so we meet with management regularly to raise concerns. This time, we brought up PPE, sick pay, and furlough for vulnerable workers, and we won. It felt great, as there are not many victories in care. For probationary workers, we got full sick pay for a month, and then a month on half sick pay, which is much better than the Statutory Sick Pay provided by the government (many people would really struggle to pay their bills on SSP). For vulnerable workers, we won furlough on 100% pay for two months, but then that went down to 80% from then on. We weren’t happy about that, but there remains an anger that will likely catalyze further action later. After all, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
I think our leverage around these issues was positively affected by the fact the organization, as a care provider, had to maintain appearances of being “caring.” They have to work within a contradiction, in which they say they provide the very best care, but they are doing it for the cheapest that they can because they want to grow the charity and remain “competitive” when bidding for tenders. Nevertheless, since “we care” is their mantra, they had to deal with the union around shortages of PPE and sick pay if they ever wanted to win a contract again.