A few years ago it seemed that the historic underpayment of the country’s home care support workers had finally been addressed, but for many employees of Lifewise Trust, work conditions have only become worse. Rebecca Macfie reports on why they’re going on strike for two weeks.
Every working week, Susie Kaio, who provides care for elderly and disabled people in their own homes, is available to her employer, Lifewise Trust, for 42 hours. Of those available hours, Lifewise guarantees only that she will be paid for just 25 hours.
Those 25 hours are rostered in dribs and drabs, from 7.30 in the morning until 5 in the evening Monday to Thursday, and from 7.30am to midday on Fridays. On a good week, Kaio might be allocated a few additional hours, but usually not. However, the deal is that she is available at the end of the phone for the full 42 hours, in case Lifewise needs her to climb into her Toyota and go to a client to check on their health, or to help with showering, toileting and dressing, or to do housework, prepare meals and shop for groceries.
She is paid $25.50 an hour for her 25 guaranteed hours, plus any additional hours that Lifewise might give her. She gets nothing for the remaining time (usually 17 hours) that she is available to her employer.
Between client visits there are often gaps of two or three hours, for which she isn’t paid. This downtime is generally not long enough to bother going home, and because rosters are released only a week in advance it’s virtually impossible to take on a second job to boost her inadequate income. She and fellow workers who are in the same situation generally don’t want to kill time at a café or a mall because they don’t have the spare cash to waste on coffees or other luxuries. Often they just sit in their cars on the side of the road as they wait between client appointments.
Lifewise calls this the “bucket” model of available and guaranteed hours. Kaio’s weekly “bucket” is filled with 42 hours of her time, from which Lifewise has guaranteed to take and pay for 25.
It’s a similar story for her co-workers. Helen Taufa is available for 32 hours but is guaranteed to be paid for only 15. Maggie Grieg is available for 45 hours but is guaranteed only 32.
It’s a model that gives the Methodist trust significant flexibility in how it meets the needs of the 880 elderly and disabled people for whom it is contracted by the Auckland District Health Board to provide in-home care. But workers argue that they are bearing the cost of the employer’s operational flexibility by being forced to survive on inadequate hours and to cope with uncertainty as to when those hours will fall.
Lifewise’s administration of guaranteed hours is a key item on the list of issues at the heart of a long-running dispute with its workers. E Tū union initiated bargaining for a collective employment agreement with the organisation two years ago, and early agreement was reached on several key matters, including increased sick and bereavement leave. However, when Covid-19 hit, the bargaining was paused, and when it resumed, Lifewise – by then with a new chief executive – retracted its offer. Lifewise said that without a government funding increase, providing extra leave to workers would mean other client services would have to be cut.
The parties have been at loggerheads ever since. Over the summer, the workers took a series of half and one-day strikes. Lifewise threatened to lock them out on three separate occasions, although each time, union lawyers were able to block the employer’s industrial action by identifying legal deficiencies in the lockout notices.
From today, unionised workers will again be on strike, from midday until 3pm, for up to 13 days.
“Despite the pay equity settlement, despite the in-between travel settlement, despite guaranteed hours, most workers in the sector would say their experience is worse now than it was a few years ago.”
Kaio has worked for Lifewise for 13 years. In the past “we always felt like we were needed, and that we belonged. There’s not that feeling any more, you are a number and that’s it,” she told Newsroom.
Despite heightened public awareness of the contribution of workers who have continued to provide health care and other essential services through the Covid crisis, Lifewise workers say their efforts haven’t been reciprocated with decent conditions of work.
“It’s quite disheartening really, says Maggie Grieg, who has been with Lifewise for 20 years. “I mean, we’re carers – we go out there and care for the vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, and this is how we get treated.”
Another major source of conflict between workers and their employer is the baffling way that Lifewise calculates the payment of travel time between clients. From every client visit, 8.5 minutes is deemed as travel time and paid at the rate of only $19.40 an hour. Client visits can be as short as 15 minutes, in which case more than half of that time is paid at the lower rate. Workers want this system scrapped and to receive their full wage for the time allocated with their client.
Newsroom sought an explanation from Lifewise for this system, with questions relating to the “bucket” model and the state of the negotiations over a collective agreement. However, chief executive Jo Denvir was unavailable to be interviewed due to a family illness, and a statement provided by Lifewise’s communications adviser didn’t answer our questions.
Lifewise is one of about 55 NGOs and private companies contracted by DHBs, ACC and the Ministry of Health to provide in-home support to the elderly, disabled and injured. Although E Tū union’s director of organising, Kirsty McCully, alleges the organisation has acted with a level of “employer hostility we have never seen in the care and support area before”, the Lifewise conflict is a symptom of much deeper problems of underfunding in the sector and the treatment of its mostly female and disproportionately Māori, Pasifika and migrant workforce.
A few years ago it seemed that the historic underpayment of the country’s 24,000 home care support workers had finally been addressed, thanks to successful legal action by trade unions. Litigation over the non-payment of care workers for the time they spent travelling between clients led to a $150 million settlement with the government in 2014, which brought in minimum wages for travel time and modest mileage rates (although some employers, including Lifewise, were already paying mileage).
And the landmark pay equity case fronted by care worker Kristine Bartlett led in 2017 to a $2 billion settlement with the Government that delivered pay rises of between 15 and 50 percent to 55,000 workers in the residential aged care and home care support sectors.
A major review of home care support services in 2015 looked at the need to create a stable, secure and well-trained workforce to meet the needs of an ageing population in which the number of over-85s will triple in the next 30 years. Out of that came the requirement for employers in the sector to provide guaranteed hours to their workers. The expectation was that workers’ guaranteed hours would gradually increase over time, giving them a decent regular income.
But for workers such as Kaio, things have got worse, not better, since the requirement for guaranteed hours was rolled out in 2017. Where she used to be able to rely on 60 hours of work a week, she now has only 25 guaranteed hours. Many of her co-workers have also had their hours reduced. And Lifewise’s application of payment for travel between clients means they are not getting the full benefit of the higher wages delivered through the pay equity settlement.
E Tū’s McCully says the guaranteed hours model has never been properly implemented, and workers across the sector – not just at Lifewise – have suffered a reduction in hours.
“Despite the pay equity settlement, despite the in-between travel settlement, despite guaranteed hours, most workers in the sector would say their experience is worse now than it was a few years ago,” she says.
“These workers are just suffering disadvantage after disadvantage …They are getting fed up with working in an environment where it feels like they are punished and disadvantaged either in the hours allocated to them or the way the work is co-ordinated, making them feel like they are something on the bottom of someone’s shoe, rather than a valued employee.”