The agency worker’s checklist

Colin is a service manager with the British Association of Social Workers Advice and Representation Service and works closely with the Social Workers Union.

“There is a lively debate currently within the profession about the extensive use of agencies by some social work service providers, primarily relating to costs.

“The Department for Education has recently announced changes that will require children's social workers to have at least three years' experience in permanent employment before moving to agency work.

“BASW’s Advice and Representation service receives around 11 requests for advice and/or support from agency social workers each month about difficulties they are experiencing in their workplace.

“These requests take different guises, ranging from defined contract issues to allegations relating to conduct or practice capability. The benefits often cited for being employed via an agency are:

  • Pay is usually higher
  • There can be more flexibility
  • You can gain experience across a broader range of social work settings more quickly
  • You can take breaks between contracts in a way that is consistent with work/life balance.

“So, it’s clear isn’t it? Working as an agency social worker is better than employment?

“Well, not really, as this is only part of the story.

“While it is still true that pay is higher, pay differentials are not as great as they once were because of legislative changes.

“In my experience, there are some things for a social worker to be aware of before deciding to go with an agency. I’ve put together a short checklist of things for you to think about when making this decision.

  • Check that you fully understand the payrate
  • Check the National Insurance contributions needed
  • Check how holiday pay is calculated
  • Check whether expenses comply with HMRC requirements
  • Check your contractual arrangement including notice periods
  • Check whether you will be compliant with the HMRC IR35 guidance
  • Check whether your agency receives financial incentives for the use of a specific umbrella company’. Look for agencies that use the BASW-created ethical umbrella company, the Social Work Employment Services (SWES)
  • Check whether there will be opportunities for training and development in order to meet CPD requirements

“It is important that social workers consider what is on offer to them as an overall package rather than the headline pay rate. For example, the possible absence of holiday pay, sickness pay, maternity and paternity pay and pension contributions.

Advice and representation – trends in experience

“As an advice and representation service manager, we see common themes emerging in the 140 or so requests for support we receive each year from agency workers.

“It is our experience that agency social workers are often more vulnerable than employed social workers, especially those with more than two years employment with that employer.

“As an example, when concerns arise, whether that be concerns about practice or conduct, or whether the agency worker themselves have concerns about their treatment by a manager/employer, it is not at all unusual for the service provider/employer, to simply end the contract with notice to avoid internal processes.

“Contracts are often (but not always) based upon a one-week notice period for either party, so it is easy and generally lawful, for them to do this. This is immensely frustrating for agency workers who do not get an opportunity to challenge or resolve these issues. There is often little remedy in law when this happens, though each case has to be looked at on its own merits, especially where there may have been discrimination.

“For more serious concerns, where an employer might have suspended or re-deployed an employee while investigating, again it is not unusual for an employer to avoid the management resource issues of an investigation, by simply ending the contract.

“What then often happens, is that the concerns are shared with the professional regulator for the regulator to investigate, if the regulator believes it necessary. Securing a reference in these circumstances can also prove very difficult.

“Of course, the number of agency workers who come to our advice and representation service is a very small proportion of the number of agency social workers in the overall workplace. However, when workplace problems arise it can leave the agency worker feeling especially powerless.

For more information or support about agency social work you might be able to find the answers to your questions in our frequently asked questions, or alternatively you can contact us.

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