A care charity could face industrial action from its 2,500 staff in the next few weeks over a decision to cut overnight staff pay to below the minimum wage.
Alternative Futures Group (AFG) told its 2,500 staff last November that it plans to cut their pay for sleep-in shifts following a Court of Appeal hearing involving Mencap, which ruled in July that workers on these shifts were not always entitled to the full minimum wage.
The Court of Appeal judgment overturned previous court rulings from 2016 and 2017 that said sleep-in shift workers should be entitled to the full minimum wage.
These previous rulings had led many social care charities, such as AFG, to pay their sleep-in shift workers top-up fees in line with the minimum wage.
The charity wrote to workers saying it would stop paying top-up fees because it was “highly likely that our commissioners will stop paying AFG a rate which would allow us to continue to make top-up payments”.
Unison North West is now balloting its members employed by AFG over prospective strike action over the pay deal, which the workers union said will cost staff as much as £40 a week, or £2,000 a year.
The ballot will run until 1 February. No proposed dates for or length of strike action have been set.
Tim Ellis, Unison North West regional organiser, disputed AFG's assertion that councils were not providing the charity with enough money to pay sleep-in workers the full minimum wage.
He said: “Councils are paying AFG enough for them to pay their staff decently for sleep-ins. AFG should pass that public money on to where it’s supposed to go – to the hardworking frontline support workers who cannot afford cuts to their incomes.
“AFG’s current plans are jeopardising service provision, impoverishing staff, and they ignore local councils’ wishes. AFG faces the real prospect of strike action if they continue on their reckless course.”
AFG said it was disappointed that Unison has undertaken a ballot for strike action “prematurely”, while discussions over pay are ongoing.
The charity said its acting chief executive Ian Pritchard and director of HR Kirsty Muldoon had listened to staff’s concerns at a recent series of “town hall” meetings.
“It is clear from these events that staff were unclear about the organisation’s reasons for these changes. These events have helped them to understand the challenging financial environment that social care charities such as AFG operate in.
“It was reiterated at these meetings that AFG is urging its Commissioners to sufficiently fund sleep-in payments from 19 April so that we can pay our dedicated support workers the National Minimum Wage.
“We are hopeful that an agreement will be reached through the conciliation process. But if strike action did go ahead, AFG has made plans to ensure that the impact on service users would be minimised.”
‘Issue not settled legally’
Unison has lodged an application to appeal the latest Mencap ruling in the Supreme Court, and it has not yet been announced whether this will be granted.
National officer Gavin Edwards said: “Time spent in a place of work with a responsibility to provide care is working time and should be paid at least the national minimum wage.
“Local authorities and organisations providing care who are seeking to cut the wages of already low paid care staff are behaving irresponsibly, and storing up serious issues for the future.
“Unison does not consider this issue to be settled legally. We'll continue to stand up for the right of care workers to receive at least the legal wage for every hour of their crucially important work.”