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Zero-hours contracts

When you are looking for work in care, you may come across something called a ‘zero-hours contract’. This is a type of employment contract that is growing in popularity in the care and support sector, and it differs from being on a permanent contract, being self-employed or being a casual worker (ie a temp).

In a normal employment contract, you will usually have a set number of hours that you will work each week or month, and you will be paid for those hours. Even if you have quiet periods at work, you will still be obliged to turn up and you will be paid for those hours.

A zero-hours contract is different; you are not guaranteed a set amount of hours, and you will only be paid for the hours that you work. However, you still remain an employed carer.

It is not black and white as to whether these contracts are a good thing or not, and it can certainly seem like there are more advantages for your employer than there are for you when compared with a traditional, permanent contract. However, if you are a self-employed paid carer, then for some people there are advantages to becoming an employee on a zero-hours contract instead.

Why do companies use zero-hours contracts?

With personalisation of services, people can choose who they buy their care services from and they can afford to be picky when parting with their money. For care providers, using paid carers who are on zero-hours contracts offers flexibility to send carers out to clients as they are needed, rather than working around staff on fixed-hours contracts. For example, a client might need a carer to help in the mornings and the evenings. If the care provider uses the staff that it has on permanent contract, this can mean sending one carer from the morning shift and one from the evening shift, so that the client has to see different people each time. However, a paid carer on a zero-hours contract could, if it was agreeable to them, cover both the morning and the evening, so that the client sees the same person every time and can build up a relationship with them.

Another advantage is that those paid carers who are good at their job will be more in demand, so more clients will want to buy their services. Being on a zero-hours contract means that those paid carers can work as much as they are needed to provide their services. This helps to push up the standards of care for the client and the care provider, as carers who don’t meet the standard won’t get any work. It also means that care providers are likely to invest in training for their paid carers so that they can offer enough good-quality care for all their clients.

There are some disadvantages for care providers though, as they might have less loyalty from zero-hours contracted employees over permanent employees, so they might end up training staff who then leave for different work. Care providers need to be careful about using solely zero-hours contracted employees and creating a ‘pool’ of paid carers to pick from, as this makes it more difficult to offer the same person to clients at all times, meaning that they won’t form that essential working relationship.

Zero-hours contract vs traditional contracts

The main disadvantage of a zero-hours contract is a lack of consistency in working hours and earnings from week to week, as there is no guarantee of work. Because some zero-hours contracts requires employees to be available for work, this could restrict you from taking on other work that might conflict with your main employer. It’s also difficult if you have children and need to arrange childcare, as work can often be offered at short notice.

If you’re employed on a zero-hours contract specifically to work with one client, then that client decides for whatever reason they don’t want you any more, you might find yourself dismissed from the company. However, this isn't always the case, and as long as the client hasn't made a complaint that would be a case for dismissal normally, then you will likely be given other work by the employer instead.

Another issue is the pay itself, which is often lower than equivalent staff on a permanent contract. Also, while you have the right to turn down hours, in reality there can be a pressure to take on all the hours offered, even at short notice, to ensure that hours are offered in the future. Depending on the nature of a zero-hours contract, you could juggle a couple of different jobs at one time, ensuring that when one employer doesn't need you, the other might, offering more long-term security. This only works if an employer doesn't ‘punish’ you for not being available when needed, and it is this practice that needs to be regulated if there is going to be a place for zero-hour contracts in the care sector.* (update below)

Not all employers are like this though, and many will offer the flexibility for you to say no to work you can’t take on, so that you can work as and when you need to and you can work for a number of different employers. This means that you can control your own earnings more than you would be able to on a fixed contract – if the work is available, you can work as many hours as you need to. If you’re good at providing care, you are more likely to be in demand, plus if you offer a specialist service, you might be able to negotiate a higher hourly rate.

Zero-hours contracts vs self-employment

If you’re working for yourself, or you’re thinking of working for yourself as a paid carer, then there are a lot more pros and cons to consider when it comes to taking on zero-hours contracts.

The advantage of having a zero-hours contract is that you are ‘employed’, which means that you don’t have to worry about doing your taxes or paying your National Insurance yourself. You will also be insured through your company, rather than finding your own insurance, and you won’t have to worry about sourcing your own policies, procedures and other forms to provide to your clients.

Being employed also means that you have all your usual employment rights, such as paid holidays and any other company perks. You’ll get paid a fixed hourly rate for any hours that you work, and you will likely receive training to ensure that you meet the standards of the care provider that you are working for. The employer will find the clients for you, so you don’t need to worry about marketing your services and from a personal safety point of view, someone will always know where you are.

However, you are still contracted to a company, which means that you don’t have the same freedoms to pick and choose your clients as you would if you were self-employed. You will also need to report to a manager about decisions that you make to do with your clients. It’s likely that you will find it harder to say no to work offered by your employer than if you were controlling your own clients. As your employer will be carrying out all of the above tasks on your behalf, you will likely receive a lower hourly rate that you would if you were self-employed and responsible for these elements yourself.

* Regulation was brought in in May 2015 which banned the exclusivity clause in zero hour contracts, meaning the providers cannot prevent staff on from working elsewhere.  However, many lawyers are saying that this legislation is 'toothless' as there are no penalties for organisations who flout the law; and organisations can get round the law by simply putting in a clause that says 'employees must be available for work' thereby effectively preventing them from taking other work.  

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