Retention payments for some children’s social workers

West Sussex County Council has been trying for some time to address a recruitment and retention crisis in some of its children’s social work teams. This led in 2017 to the introduction of a Market-Related Supplement to lift up children’s social worker pay.

There has also been work, which UNISON has contributed to, to address some of the other factors which if improved could lead to greater stability in the workforce: such as, flexible working opportunities, use of sabbaticals, addressing caseloads and so on. In fact UNISON’s children’s social care reps contributed a list of 38 different ideas to management in July 2018, building on work which started last year.

5 separate ‘retention payments’

In November, WSCC considered its recruitment and retention crisis had got so severe it could not wait any longer and it introduced a scheme to pay 5 separate ‘retention payments’ of £3,000 each to social workers in certain children’s teams. This sum is taxable (and has to have NI paid on it) but is clearly still a considerable sum of money.

UNISON was however greatly concerned about the way this had been communicated to staff. We raised a total of 27 different points with management at our November meeting with them. For example:

  • The email did not fully explain the rationale and evidence for the payments leading to greater staff upset
  • Some people who should have received the email received it, and others who were not due to receive it did
  • The timing just before Christmas led to huge resentment in teams not receiving it
  • The conditions to receiving the £3K were not set out. These are actually quite extensive, but many staff would have had the impression that this was cash ‘without strings attached’
  • The email did not give due regard to unqualified staff and staff in teams being cut – such as IPEH
  • The email did not mention the possibility for non-eligible staff to move teams in order to receive a retention payment
  • The email did not mention there will be an annual review of teams eligible, and of making the payments overall
  • Managers of the teams not getting the payment received no forewarning to help cushion the disappointment of staff in their teams.

We raised all these points, and an undertaking was given to send out a further communication to staff, since received.

Serious concerns

UNISON retains a number of serious concerns though about the payments and how they have been rolled out.

  • Staff not receiving the payment feel that they are not valued by WSCC
  • There is likely to be unintended consequences in worsening retention rates in non-prioritised teams
  • Any staff member being managed through a formal process (e.g. sickness) will have their payment withheld. This could be unfair if the sickness is related to disability or stress caused by work
  • Eligibility for the payment will be subject to performance being at an ‘appropriate’ level as determined via appraisal and supervision. This is highly subjective, and introduces a form of arbitrary, performance-related pay.

We suggest that any members eligible for a retention payment who are denied it get in touch with the branch office for advice and support.

We will be monitoring the impact of the retention payment on other teams’ stability, and making representations to management as necessary.

We are also asking the council to prioritise work on other forms of retention initiatives (e.g. career breaks, flexible working etc. as set out above) alongside Retention payments in order to alleviate the negative impact on some of the Children’s Services staff group.

If you are in a children’s social work team, now is a good time to elect a workplace rep.