Foster carers must be eligible for sick pay – or they could face “destitution” during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a union representing them.
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) says foster carers are more likely to be exposed to the virus via children moving between families.
There are 55,000 foster workers in the UK, looking after 65,000 children – but they are classed as self-employed, and are not eligible for sick pay.
One London foster carer told the Local Democracy Service that the sector is facing a financial “cliff edge” because of Covid-19.
Susanna (not her real name), is a respite carer in north London – she looks after children for short periods to give their main carers a break.
But her respite work was cancelled “as soon as the coronavirus happened”, she says.
“That’s just about okay because I’ve got another job,” she adds. “But if I’d made just slightly different financial decisions I could have been in a really difficult position.”
Susanna says it is “ridiculous” that foster carers are classed as self-employed because “none of the criteria apply to us” – and now the issue of sick pay is particularly acute.
“It’s always a risk that you don’t have security,” she says. “But in this situation it’s a cliff edge.”
London care workers are particularly vulnerable because of the high cost of living in the capital, she says.
“To be paying London rent and keep one or two spare bedrooms free is a much bigger risk,” she explains.
If foster carers can’t afford their rent, they may be forced to abandon their work – depriving vulnerable youngsters of a stable home, the IWGB warns.
And the disruption of lockdown for children in care is already “massive”, according to Susanna.
Restrictions are putting extra strain on those with autism, ADHD or mental health conditions who are in care, she says.
Susanna doesn’t blame the youngsters she cares for – “from their perspective, people are always telling them things to do” – but she knows at least one carer with underlying health problems who has children coming in and out of her house.
Two carers she knows have had to take time off work because of illness – one was admitted to hospital with coronavirus.
“Obviously I really want to take the kids on anyway,” she says. “But it’s quite a big risk to take, and there’s not really any support and guidance.”
Some foster carers report having no updates from their local authority at all during lockdown.
For now, Susanna is still willing to take a chance if a child needs help. “I suspect when I’m asked I will say yes,” she says. “But it feels quite a high risk situation. It just makes you feel extra vulnerable.”
The IWGB union is now petitioning Parliament to change the rules so that foster carers are paid for sick days if they get ill during the crisis.
Workers in the sector should always have employee rights, including sick cover, they say.
IWGB foster care branch chair Jane Wright, said their work is “not only more challenging but also more important now than ever”.
She said: “In a pandemic, denial of sick pay threatens to plunge even more of us into poverty.
“With a six week wait for universal credit, any unwell foster care worker forced to self-isolate risks destitution.
“They may be unable to pay bills and if they lose their house, their fostered child has nowhere to come home to.”
The Department for Education was approached for comment.