It’s time for health employers to stop exploiting residential care staff

Una Faulkner, IMPACT organiser

As a union organiser I’ve met a lot of residential care staff over the course of the last two years. I’m constantly struck by their devotion to their work, and the skill and experience they apply to it. These are workers who provide care to children, to people with disabilities and to people who are homeless. They provide that care around the clock.

I’m struck by the fact that their work is incredibly valuable to the people they work with. And I think it’s fair to say the value of their work reaches far wider, to their communities and to society too. But I’m conscious every time I talk to them about their work that something is deeply wrong; something that has the potential to undermine the very valuable work they do. Something that needs to be put right.

“Sleepover” duty, as it is known, is part of the working week for residential care staff. Having staff on-site throughout the day and night is a vital component of residential care. If someone wakes in the middle of the night, distressed or in need of assistance, residential staff are there to take care of them. They help to create a more homely environment, providing stability and reassurance for the people in their care.

But a failure on the part of employers to observe the working time legislation means that these workers are being forced to work excessive hours. And that’s how the dedication and value of these workers is being exploited.

This week, IMPACT lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission on behalf of our members working as residential care staff. IMPACT and SIPTU are working together to highlight the fact that many health employers are in breach of EU and Irish working time legislation.

The problem is that health employers do not treat these “sleepover” hours as working time for pay purposes, or when they’re calculating the time that can be legally worked. This means that staff are expected to work excessive hours. Many work a minimum of 63 hours a week. The legal maximum is 48.

They receive a ‘sleepover’ allowance of just €5.40 an hour, which is well below the statutory minimum wage of €8.65. Bear in mind it is usual for staff to be actively working to provide care during some or all of the ‘sleepover’ period.

This is not a sustainable practice. It’s not good for the care staff and it’s not good for the people they care for. Employers are exploiting both the staff and the service users. We’re campaigning for this exploitation to stop.

IMPACT wants to see a situation where staff work a maximum of one ‘sleepover’ a week on average. This should be worked as part of the 39 hours set out in their contracts. Any work beyond 39 hours, including so-called ‘sleepovers,’ should be paid as overtime.
These measures would improve how time and resources are managed because staff would not find themselves pushed beyond the legal limits. Ultimately, these measures would serve to improve the quality and level of care too. I think that’s worth fighting for. Don’t you?

The first in a series of information meetings for this campaign takes place in IMPACT’s head office next Tuesday (4th March) at 6pm. I’ll be posting details here of further meetings throughout the country in the coming days.