Home support – on the road to a better working life

A ground-breaking agreement negotiated by the PSA, SFWU, providers, DHBs, and the Ministry of Health means that since 1 July 2015 many home support workers are being paid for their travel time as an interim payment until new travel bands come into effect by 1 March 2016 – and that could be just the beginning of real change in this sector.

Home support worker June Conner

Home support worker June Conner

By Shelly Biswell

While it seems reasonable to be paid for time it takes to travel between clients, until this winter that wasn’t the case for the majority of home support workers.

“Support workers are already extremely underpaid for the skills and complexity of the work they do – often making little more than the minimum wage,” says PSA organiser Melissa Woolley. “But on top of that, until the In-between Travel Settlement Agreement, most support workers weren’t being compensated for their travel time.”

Time spent between home visits adds up as home support worker and PSA delegate Beryl Barr explains, “I’m averaging an increase in my take home pay of about $100 more per week because of the interim arrangement. It’s made a huge change in my life, essentially meaning I don’t need to chase additional work to make up for low wages,” she says. “It’s also easy to track. We have so much paperwork in our lives already, it’s nice to have an accounting system that is clear and is automatically added into our pay.”

Melissa says for some home support workers the financial gain makes it possible to stay in the sector. “Beyond the low pay, for most support workers there are currently no guarantees in the number of hours they work per week. It’s a bad combination of working conditions that has led to a destabilised workforce with a nearly 40 percent staff turnover rate.”

Home support worker and union delegate June Conner agrees, “There are so many variables beyond our control that being paid for travel time takes some of the edge off. For example, if a client goes to hospital that means I am down those hours for the week. So, I might start the week thinking I have X number of hours, but if I have a high-needs client who goes into hospital, I could very easily lose one-third or even half of my anticipated hours,” she says.

As a result of the interim arrangement June is earning on average $350 extra a fortnight less tax in her take home pay. “That makes a huge difference,” she says.

Home support worker and PSA member Cathy Terry says the pay is also an acknowledgment of what support workers do, “It’s been brilliant. It’s challenging work, so this change feels like a first step in better recognising what we do.”

Melissa says paid travel time is just the first of several significant changes that have been negotiated with the Government, DHBs, unions, and home and community support providers. “From 1 March 2016, support workers will also be reimbursed for travel costs at 50 cents per kilometre and that will rise to 60 cents per kilometre on 1 July 2016 if funding is available. That’s a significant increase from the average currently being paid in the sector of 33 cents per kilometre.”

A first step PSA national secretary Richard Wagstaff says, “the elephant in the room for home support work is that it’s predominantly women in these roles. For a country that often touts itself as the first in the world to give women the vote, we have a poor track record when it comes to equal pay for work of equal value. That record goes from poor to appalling when talking about support work where there has been a consistent and systemic undervaluation of this important work.

“But, there finally appears to be a real change in how people perceive these roles. This negotiated agreement along with the initial Court decisions in Kristine Bartlett and Service & Food Workers Union vs Terranova Homes & Care Ltd (see Working Life, June 2015) are promising and may mean the next chapter in our nation’s history is one we can all be proud of.”

Melissa says that the initial negotiations for the In-between Travel Settlement Agreement led to a broader discussion about the sustainability of the home and community support Services model.

“As a result, a working group that includes representatives from the PSA, SFWU, DHBs, the Ministry of Health and providers is looking at ways to transition to a ‘regularised’ workforce. The changes are significant and when achieved will ensure guaranteed hours for the majority of the workforce, paid training to enable support workers to gain level 3 qualifications, wages based on the required levels of training, and fair and safe workload allocations.”

Home support worker Angela Simons says the changes have made a real difference in her life, “I’ve always loved what I do – that hasn’t changed. But it’s nice to feel like our work is finally being recognised as valuable.”