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Care workers launch biggest ever legal claim over minimum wage

Seventeen home care workers are taking legal action against care company Sevacare over what they allege is the non-payment of minimum wage. The group claim that in some cases workers were paid as little as £3.27 an hour. However, Sevacare claim they pay above minimum wage and that the workers are claiming pay for hours that are considered to be off duty.

The action is being backed by Unison, who said that the case is the biggest it has ever taken involving home care workers.

Basis for the claim
Unison has said the action centres on the company failing to pay care workers a legal wage. As the time spent travelling between client's homes goes unpaid, it can mean, on a typical day, workers are away from home for up to 14 hours, but only receive pay for half that time.

Workers providing live-in care can earn even less. The nature of the job involves spending an entire week living in the client's home to provide them with round-the-clock care, workers can get as little as £3.27 an hour – an hourly rate that is printed on their payslips.

Living in a prison
Unison highlights the case of one woman who compared her live-in care employment to being in prison because she is not allowed to leave the client's home for an entire week.

The worker's zero-hours contracts prevent them from complaining about their treatment or low wages. A concern is that complaints may result in workers being given reduced hours or no work at all.

Unison general secretary, Dave Prentis believes care workers are paying the price for the government and council cuts which he says results in there not being enough money to properly fund the care that's needed. He said: "More money must be put into care so that councils are not forced to tender contracts at a price that they know decent care cannot be delivered."

Sevacare claim staff paid fairly
In a statement to the BBC, Sevacare disputed that workers had been working 24 hours a day, saying that the live-in carers hours were covered by a 'daily average agreement' that saw them paid for 10 hours. The company claims that care workers were actually receiving £550 for a seven-day week; equivalent to £7.85 an hour.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Haringey Council said that the council paid Sevacare enough money through contract fees to ensure that all live-in carers could receive not only national minimum wage but national living wage for the 24-hour care they provide.

Definition of work likely to prove crucial
Care workers are vulnerable to being paid less that the minimum wage because it has traditionally been the norm to pay employee's a set rate, even it they are required to be on the premises and allowed to sleep.

Sarah Naylor, employment law specialist, commented: "How the term 'work' is defined will likely be an important factor in the claim, as will whether the employees were paid to be present at work or merely available for work. 'Being at work' is a legal definition involving several factors, the more flexibility the worker has the less likely it is they will be working in the eyes of the law.

The case of Esparon t/a Middle West Residential Care Home v Slavikovska (UKEAT/0217/12) will no doubt be relied upon as a precedent by the claimant workers. In that case, a tribunal concluded that a care assistant, who was permitted to sleep during her night shifts but required to stay on the premises to carry out certain duties, should be paid the minimum wage for the entire night shift, including the hours she was asleep."

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