A Carer in Court

For decades full-time carers, paid by the Ministry of Health, but not recognised as employees, have scraped by on the equivalent of $3 an hour. Support group member and former full-time carer, Jan Lowe, called enough.

Carer relief is a part of the health system that gives the full-time carer of an incapacitated person a break.

Often the person cared for will have Alzheimers or other serious disabilities. After an assessment, the full time carer is given so many hours a year and has to choose a relief carer of their choice. This may be for a few hours at a time or specific days a week. The Ministry of Health pays for these hours.

The relievers do not come under any other home-care organisations. The Ministry has said they are not “employees”, rather “informal independent contractors”or “volunteers.” It says that they receive an “allowance”, not a wage, therefore they were not workers for the Ministry.

But they pay just $75 for 24 hours, or, a little more than $3 per hour. To Jan’s knowledge, this hasn’t changed since she first worked as a carer 25 years ago. With the help of the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU), she went to the Employment Court seeking redress – and won. Finally they were employees, not receivers of an allowance.

The Employment Court found that relief carers were employees. It said they did the same tasks and had the same responsibilities as the full-time carer and the same as formal care-workers in rest homes or home-care organisations.

As often happens, an appeal followed and the Ministry won round two, in the Court of Appeal, a year ago. The Ministry claimed successfully that it could not afford to pay the minimum wage and, anyway, it wasn’t a job – carers were not employees. The carers were back to receiving an allowance, not a minimum wage.

So Jan and the union went to the Supreme Court this month to argue their final chance for legal redress.

Jan says the Ministry’s stance was about semantics and was totally unjust.

“They pay for the service without being responsible for holiday or sick pay or any of the other rights that formal workers have” Jan says.

Their ‘allowance’ has been unchanged for at least 25 years – $75 for a day (24 hours) or $37.50 for a half-day (12 hours). This equates to just over $3 per hour.

“How can they, a government department, justify that in any way?” she says.

Jan’s goal is that the whole issue will be looked at objectively by the Supreme Court and that relief carers will become part of the formal home-care working system.

She’s now awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision.