Calling time on my zero-hours job

I’m about to lose the zero-hours job I love.

Maybe “lose” isn’t the right word. But the contract under which I work has been taken from the charitable sector and awarded to a private company. The new bosses at the multi-million pound business taking over refuse to honour existing terms and conditions. They won’t even discuss them.

Instead, they’re offering exactly the same work with a 44 per cent cut in pay. (51 per cent for those living outside London).

So thanks, but no thanks. There’s austerity, and then there’s just plain insulting.

Let me explain. For the past two years I have worked as an “Expert by Experience” for the Care Quality Commission. I accompany CQC inspectors on unannounced visits to care homes for the elderly where I talk to residents and their relatives about their care. I visit people in their rooms, observe activities and meal times, assess the environment – from the state of the carpets to any bad smells – and then write a detailed report.

We’re called Experts by Experience because we’ve all had direct and extensive contact with health or social care services, usually as a result of caring for a family member. So we’re there to make sure the people using these services – and their families – are listened to.*

That requires patience, attention to detail, skilled interviewing and accurate note taking – sometimes in very difficult circumstances.

People in homes for the elderly typically have high levels of need. It could be serious physical ill health; it could be dementia – often both.

Conversations can be repetitive, fragmentary or non-existent. While the CQC inspectors wade through the minutiae of care plans and staff training files, check regulations and interview managers and carers, we sit and chat and observe how the residents actually live.

We wait patiently while they struggle to find their words. We watch interactions between staff and residents, listening for signs of disrespect and noting the many examples of genuinely warm and affectionate care.

Sometimes we pause, put the investigative work on one side and simply listen to life stories. A widow still grieving for a young husband lost in the war. A relative wracked with guilt because they can’t look after their loved ones in their own homes anymore.

Conversations can be unbearably intimate. Elderly women will tell you about the children they wished they’d had. Recovering alcoholics describe the families that fell apart in their drinking years.

Afterwards, we sift through it all, pulling out the important details. Our reports are woven into the inspectors’ final judgements of the standards of care, and include many direct quotes.

It’s interesting and rewarding work and, CQC colleagues tell us repeatedly, we are “unique and valuable” members of the inspection teams.

But evidently not valuable enough.

The CQC contracts out the Experts by Experience programme. It’s run by a number of “support organisations,” including AgeUK for whom I have worked on a zero-hours basis.

Now, after a protracted procurement process, AgeUK and a number of other charities have lost their contracts in three out of four English regions.

From February 1st, the programme will be run instead by Remploy – once a government agency, now a private company majority-owned by US health and human services business Maximus.

Remploy/Maximus have promised to deliver hundreds more Experts by Experience for the CQC. But the budget is tight and presumably they also have to deliver profits for their shareholders. Hence the big cut in our pay.

From £17.00 per hour, to £9.40 in London and £8.25 elsewhere.

In other words, people with considerable expertise and years of experience, selected through a rigorous interview process and then given specialist training, are being offered the Living Wage.

Less than my student nephew gets for a match-day shift at the pub.

True, few of us became Experts for the money. And we’ve always put in extra hours for free.

But some Experts are retired and living on modest pensions. Others have caring responsibilities or disabilities that make this kind of flexible work a lifeline. For them, the pay cut (announced just three weeks before the new contract was due to start) is a real blow.

But more than that, regardless of personal circumstances, the terms of the new contract are insulting. Not just to us but to the elderly and vulnerable people we’re there to represent. From next week, it seems, their opinions and feelings will be worth roughly half as much as they are now.

So not surprisingly, we’re protesting. Or at least trying to.

It’s not easy communicating with other Experts. Though we have Contracts of Employment, we’re not apparently employees. We’re merely “workers” and as few of us are members of the recognised work-place union, it has declined to get involved. Welcome to the zero-hours world.

But bit by bit we’re connecting with each other and discovering that very few of us are prepared to work for a private contractor for such low pay. (Oh, did I mention they’re shaving an hour off the already short time paid for report writing and a few pennies off the mileage allowance too? The shareholders will be pleased.)

The CQC says it’s aware of our concerns but that the new contract is a good one because there’ll be many more Experts by Experience over-all. But who will they get for such low pay? And when are they going to be recruited and trained?

Calls to Remploy go unanswered. (The receptionist has no extension for the Experts by Experience programme). It has therefore been difficult to discover more about the contract discussions that the CQC says are continuing. So far, our protests have produced what the CQC clearly thinks is a sweetener: existing Experts who join Remploy will get “up to” £15.00 per hour for the first six months of the new regime.

A small pay cut to help a big company get its new business up and running so that it can then take an even bigger slice of our pay?

No thanks.

Unlike the vast majority of people on zero-hours contracts (cleaners, carers, food industry workers… admittedly a growing list), I’m a well educated stroppy middle class professional and I can afford to just walk away.

But I’m sad that an inspection this week was my last. Sad also that there are unlikely to be many (if any) experienced and qualified Experts available for inspections come February 1st.    

And mostly I’m sad – and angry – that the same free market, get-the-rock-bottom-price-whatever ideology that encourages faceless corporations to squeeze money out of public services has now swallowed up a socially valuable job I loved.

Once again, it’s the powerless and vulnerable who’ll suffer as a result.

(UPDATE: Thirty-six hours after this blog was published, the CQC acknowledged the concerns of Experts by Experience and announced an update on its contract negotiations with Remploy. Now, in addition to the offer of six months work at £15.00 per hour, there’ll be an additional six months at £12.50. After that, pay will be set at an as yet undecided rate. (That’s despite Remploy having sent us all details of the very much decided £9.40/£8.25 pay). A sliding scale of insult and uncertainty then. They can still count me out.)

(*While I do mostly elderly care, other Experts focus on homes for people with mental health problems or learning disabilities. We also join inspections of hospitals, GP surgeries and domiciliary care. All are affected by the change in contract)