With costs rising, the government must do more to unlock the earning potential of people juggling work and care

Rosie Fogden argues that the government must expand the right to flexible working to better support people juggling work with unpaid caring responsibilities

4 May 2022

By Rosie Fogden

4 minute read

More flexible working options could unlock £3,000 in extra earnings for people juggling work with unpaid caring responsibilities. Post-Covid demand for care, combined with soaring food and fuel prices, bring a new urgency to the need for flexible working policies and enforcement. The government should uphold its election promise and include the Employment Bill in next week’s Queen’s Speech.

The demand for adult social care has long outstripped formal supply and as a result unpaid carers – often wives, husbands, daughters and sons – are left to fill the gaps. The rise of long Covid, alongside a fall in the number of years women can expect to live in good health, will only make matters worse. At the other end of the age spectrum, caring responsibilities for young children present similar issues. The childcare sector is both prohibitively expensive and struggling to meet demand due to post-Covid nursery closures and chronic underfunding which sees the UK spend one of the lowest proportions of GDP on childcare among advanced economies. Caught in the middle are so-called ‘sandwich carers’, those who combine care of a dependent child and a sick, disabled or elderly adult and who are often are trying to work at the same time.

Research for CPP finds that working age sandwich carers are more likely to say childcare impacts their ability to work (71%) than those just caring solely for children (62%) and are more likely to have reduced their hours working. This is hardly surprising when you look at the sheer volume of time spent caring – 24 hours a week on average caring for children and 17 hours a week caring for adults. This means that sandwich carers and their families are less able to increase their earnings to cope with the emerging cost of living crisis.

For the vast majority of sandwich carers, flexible working is part of the answer. 84% of sandwich carers surveyed say that increased flexibility at work would help them in some way. Yet one in four (25%) said that their employer currently offered inadequate or no flexibility and 1 in 8 (13%) of those who had requested more flexibility were turned down.

As the cost of our daily essentials spirals, we need government policy to focus on supporting people to access good jobs and work more of the hours that they would like to. The Employment Bill was meant to encourage flexible working as well as strengthen labour market enforcement, but media reports suggest it is unlikely to make it into next week’s Queen’s Speech. At the same time, the Prime Minister has repeatedly framed remote working - a core component of flexibility - as a problem to be solved rather than a solution to be embraced. This populist stance rows back on manifesto commitments made in 2019 and repeatedly delayed, ultimately impacting the earnings of unpaid carers and their dependants. CPP estimates that if employers allowed sandwich carers to work more flexibly, it could increase their earnings by up to £20.8bn per year or over £3,000 per person.

At a minimum, the government needs to honour its commitment to introducing more flexible working and to introducing its promised entitlement to Carer’s Leave. And if the government really wants to show it is on the side of unpaid carers, it should go further, establishing national targets for the advertisement of flexible roles and requiring employers to consider flexible working arrangements for all applicants. Such a move, recommended by CPP’s deep dive into the gender division of unpaid care, could hugely boost the participation of carers in the economy, and would send a strong signal about the government’s commitment to flexible working.

Notes

To reach an estimate for the potential earnings boost to sandwich carers we first estimate the total number of sandwich carers in the UK by applying our survey findings to ONS working age population data. We then apply the national employment rate (75.5%) and the proportion of sandwich carers who said they would work more hours if allowed to work more flexibly by their employers (48%). For these people, we assume that they are able to work the additional hours that they would like (11.9 per week on average) and that they are paid at the median hourly rate excluding bonuses according to ONS ASHE data (£14.05). The per person estimate divides this figure by the estimated total number of sandwich carers.