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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Living Wage Champion, Seniors Helping Seniors

Christian Wilse cropped

As part of Living Wage Week, HCI is delighted to publish an interview with Seniors Helping Seniors UK, a company that has been named a ‘champion’ for its leadership in promoting the voluntary Living Wage in the care sector.

SHS is a social care organisation using a unique model to tackle two of the biggest social problems in an ageing society – elderly care and employment opportunities for people as they age.

The company started in America in 1998 and, in 2013, Norwegian-born Christian Wilse (pictured) bought a master franchise license to launch the company in the UK. The first office was set up in Canterbury and, together with his wife Sally, Christian now supports the franchise partners who own four other branches in the South East of England, with more in the pipeline.

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SHS provides non-medical, in-home care and matches seniors who need help with things like meal preparation, shopping and companionship, with seniors who want to help them.

The company is passionate about providing sustainable jobs and has paid its staff above the real Living Wage – currently set at £9.50 per hour and £10.85 per hour in London – since the beginning. In August, it increased its hourly rate by 5% to £10, plus holiday pay of 12.07%.

Here, Christian discusses the importance of paying care staff the real Living Wage, as well as some of the challenges that come with it. He also explains the value of his company’s care model; how the business has fared during the pandemic; and what factors, apart from paying above the real Living Wage, have enabled SHS to achieve a retention rate of less than 1%.

The average age of your workforce is around 59. Why is it so important for you, as a company, to employ senior workers?

We believe that older people can help each other to age better and, in doing so, both carer and the client will benefit. And when both carer and client benefit, it improves health and well-being.

We’ve proven the advantages of employing seniors – they are reliable and, not only that, by embracing an older workforce we are utilising and preserving skills. We are investing in local communities, building local assets and providing sustainable jobs and, in an aging society, there’s actually no shortage of this workforce and there’s no shortage of clients either.

Do you think that, generally, seniors are disadvantaged when it comes to being recruited and retaining jobs?

I think they’re undervalued, and I think the pandemic has worsened the situation. The number of workers seeking unemployment-related benefits doubled during the lockdown, as far as I know, and over 50s who are unemployed are twice as likely to be out of work for 12 months or more as it stands. The last statistics that I read also showed that one in four older workers – or 2.5 million in total – have been furloughed, and there’s hundreds of thousands who will be unable to return to their jobs. In every community, companies that are employing older workers are sadly closing, and we’re doing our bit to make sure that we can get them back to work.

The care sector needs help and carers everywhere deserve more. So we believe that if we share the benefits of paying carers the real Living Wage, other providers may learn from us.

So what are you doing to attract these older workers?

We are employing for a role in which they feel valuable and they can utilise their local knowledge and skill sets because we match up carers with the skills that are required for each client.

The last time the care sector was in a crisis, the BBC came and made a report about us and the reporter asked the client ‘what is it that you like about being cared for by an older person?’ It’s wrong to generalise, as everybody is different, but it was because we match carers to the clients and, because of their life experience, the clients and carers generally like the same things. They cook together, they like the same music and films and they laugh at the same jokes. Also, our carers know how it feels to age.

How specifically can providers attract the older workforce to the care sector from other industries?

It’s tricky because providers need to create the work that an older workforce can and wants to do. Can an older person maintain skills and strength for personal care? I don’t know about that.

Social care is a professional career and I think that’s a very important message. We fully support younger people choosing social care as a career and our role in that is proving that care is a life-long career. So all those coming into the sector know that, if they want to, they can work up to their 80s!

Care staff need more than claps and rainbows. The public support was amazing, but carers and their employers have been let down by the government.

So you are open to employing a younger workforce as well?

Absolutely. Just today we had a 21 year-old who wanted to work with us. Even though our name is Senior Helping Seniors, we are also attracting younger people. What is important is how we carefully match carers with clients. The youngest staff member we have is 34 and I think the client was expecting someone older when we first introduced them, but it turned out well. They have very similar interests.

How has your company is fared during the pandemic?

Luckily, everyone has kept well and safe and we’ve been very fortunate that our business is growing. People want to be cared for in their own homes, now more than ever. We’re hiring new carers all the time and we have new enquiries every day from organisations who refer us because they know we have capacity, and from clients and their families needing support.

We also have more people coming forward to open Seniors Helping Seniors in their own communities. I think people are re-evaluating what they want from their jobs and what they want to make out of their life. Also, home care has proven to be resilient, and we’re proud to say that over 20 years, and now in the face of the pandemic, we have proven that too. The demand is there and the supply is there. We’ve got plenty of territories left to fill, especially in the South-East and the East.

At the start of the pandemic, we involved our carers as soon as a rumour looked like it was turning into a reality. We asked them how they felt about working and we discussed the steps that we needed to put in place to keep them and our clients safe. I don’t think anyone can say they were prepared for the pandemic, but we quickly tested everything out through head office and the first UK area. We were able to share best practices with our offices, so every owner knew exactly what to expect and how to get the best possible outcomes for people. We kept in contact with every office and everyone involved pulled together.

We are investing in local communities, building local assets and providing sustainable jobs and, in an aging society, there’s actually no shortage of an older workforce.

Care workers have gone above and beyond during this during the pandemic. How can providers keep staff energised amid a second wave?

It’s a challenge, but I would say that our team is fully ready and strong. I know other providers have had a far worse experience than us and my heart goes out to all of those who fear that their teams are not prepared mentally for what’s coming next.

Care staff need more than claps and rainbows. The public support was amazing, but carers and their employers have been let down by the government. Providers have been unable to provide rest and recuperation, and proper recompense for what the carers went through. So it’s a very sad situation.

We have a very open policy, we’re very transparent and we communicate with our staff. It is important that we communicate with them daily and get an understanding of how each client has been that day. That has been very welcomed by the carers because they feel involved.

Seniors Helping Seniors carer Colin, with his client Joan.

You’re recognised as a Living Wage Champion. Could you describe what that means to our readers?

We do things differently and we hope that some, or all, of what we do is transferrable. The care sector needs help and carers everywhere deserve more. So we believe that if we share the benefits of paying carers the real Living Wage, other providers may learn from us. We lead by example and we fight for what is right. The care sector, as we all know, is in crisis and the only way out of the crisis is to provide lasting solutions and better care for people.

Strong primary care avoids accidents in the home and the isolation and loneliness that lead to acute needs and spiralling costs. To achieve this you need experts doing their best work. Those experts need to work less, but to be paid more. Seniors Helping Seniors is doing that now – we are providing sustainable jobs for people and our company is doing really well.

We’re also working with the government on an initiative to provide jobs for people who face additional barriers to finding and getting work.

Pay is obviously an important factor, but feeling valued and having the experience of helping others helps keep our staff turnover down to near non-existing levels.  

Could you describe this government initiative in more detail?

We are working with Unlimited, a charity supporting social enterprises, which is playing a part in a government scheme to help people who are distanced from work, get into work. Also, we are in touch with local authorities, and whatever charities operate in the area, about what we can do for them. We are very active and, although most of our clients are private funders, during COVID-19 it’s been very important for us to do pro bono work and make sure that we’re out there, doing as much as we can.

It’s not always easy for providers to pay the Living Wage because of the way care is commissioned by local authorities. What can the government do to make sure that care workers are paid fairly?

We have been very fortunate because, having set out to pay above carers above the Living Wage, we have managed and our businesses are profitable. It’s taken a long time to get to where we are now, but it does work. But, unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to your question. I wish I did.

Some organisations have suggested scrapping local authority commissioning altogether. How do you feel about that?

I really don’t know because the commissioning obviously fulfils a need, but some councils go about doing this the wrong way.

We’re all trying to simplify things, but you’ve got to stop and look at who this is benefiting. It needs to be the client! I think councils need to revaluate their model so that they hand out care based on outcomes, rather than time and task.

Commissioners have sought us out. Some even came from Korea because they were so impressed with our mission. The reason we are not active participants in commissioned care is because we are out of scope for the CQC and the archaic mechanisms that surround all that prevent change.

When clients who are spending their own budgets want to prevent needs escalating, they involve us early on. We keep people well and hospital admissions and acute need are reduced.

There needs to be more value on preventative care, keeping people well and out of acute need. Social prescribing is part of that, but prescribers need to factor in the practical and emotional support needed for people to attend. We’ve had great success with exercise referral when carers accompany clients to classes and events. How else is someone with dementia going to navigate the prescription?

I also think that joined-up care is going to be very important going forward. We have worked closely with Age UK to compensate when they can’t fulfil things. We’ve also worked with Home Instead in the past because they aren’t present in this area of the country. It’s all about not being afraid of each other and making things smoother for the client. We need to bring in expertise when needs escalate, but continuity of care is critical for the client.

We have only increased our prices once in our eight years in the UK and that was when our company reached the VAT threshold. We have battled the HMRC on the VAT issue, but they keep appealing the verdict.

How are you able to pay above the Living Wage without passing on increasing costs to your customers?

It’s actually even worse than it appears. Since we don’t deliver personal care, we are out of scope for the CQC. An act of parliament would be needed for CQC to regulate our services. The HMRC only has two exclusions for VAT on welfare services – charitable status and CQC regulation. We don’t believe in either structure, so our clients are lumbered with VAT. 

We have only increased our prices once in our eight years in the UK and that was when our company reached the VAT threshold. We have battled the HMRC on the VAT issue, but they keep appealing the verdict.

We absorbed all the costs of the pandemic too and 60% of the charge goes to our carers. I don’t know any other company who does that.  For us, it’s the right thing to do. The carers deliver the service.

Our overheads are low and we are independently owned so we don’t have investors to answer to. We are a home-based business and this has helped us with COVID-19 infection control, but it also helps us keep costs low. The whole business is sustainable. Our plan is always to do away with VAT, but that will take a change in the law, or an escalation of our offering.

Although most of our clients are private funders, during COVID-19 it’s been very important for us to do pro bono work and make sure that we’re out there, doing as much as we can.

Your staff turnover rate is less than 1%. Is this mainly down to you paying the real Living Wage, or are there more factors involved?

I’m very proud of that. Our company was designed around the concept of older people caring for the elderly and both benefiting. Since Seniors Helping Seniors started in 1998, our strap line “a way to give and to receive” has been at the heart of the organisation.

Pay is obviously an important factor, but feeling valued and having the experience of helping others helps keep our staff turnover down to near non-existing levels.  

It’s also because we match the carers with the client based on their locality, personality and skills set and we manage schedules with a personal touch. It’s relatively easy to get to work, the work is important and highly valued carers are treated with utmost respect. We try and avoid carers driving for more than five miles to a client, but we’d have to broaden the search if we can’t find the right person.

Retention isn’t an issue for Seniors Helping Seniors, but for lots of providers it is. What advice would you give to them to help retain a quality workforce for as long as possible?

I’d say it’s around transparency. The structure of our company is very flat.  We take the time to explain who the client is and what their needs are. It’s like anything – inclusion is key.

Tags : interviewSeniors Helping Seniors
Sarah Clarke

The author Sarah Clarke

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