When I look back at when I first started working in the substance misuse sector 17 years ago, the salaries for people with lived experience were at about 15 to 17k per annum. I was aware of one organisation paying their lived experience staff 14k per annum. While key worker roles were around the 21k to 23k. In my experience people with lived experience coming from the grips of addiction, with low self-worth, self-belief and new to employment, were grateful that we had been offered a job and a wage and that someone thought we were trustworthy enough (imposter syndrome) to do the job. We never questioned the poor wages we were given, as we were so full of gratitude to be working, we went way above the expectations of the role, just to prove our worth.
If I look at that situation from today’s perspective, with over 17 years of experience 10 of those working in rehabilitation centres to statutory organisations and then 10 years founding and running my own LERO (while still in employment at a statuary service) I start to see the exploitation of POLEs (People Of Lived Experience) when it comes to salaries, as the salary indicates that lived experience is seen as unskilled and not as valued as much as the other roles within the organisation, this is why lived experience is on the lowest tier of the employment ladder.
I have seen things change slightly as inflation and salaries increase, but it never really reflected the value of lived experience as a ‘profession’ and a skill set. Therefore, LEROs and even 3rd sec organisations are still paid a lot less than other organisations across the sector, furthermore when LEROs & 3rd sector are commissioned they are only commissioned on short term contracts that leave these organisations in constant fear of one, losing their staff due to salary being far lower than statutory organisations & NHS, two because there is no long term security within the role, so they cannot look at a career progression also with the fear of not being able to pay their rent or mortgages, because LEROs & 3rd sec organisations often only get one year contracts or funding.
When I look at the current landscape and the rate of inflation. We see many professionals in the public sector & private sector going on strike, e.g. postal workers, train drivers and nurses and rightly so, may I add. These professions are saying they cannot live on the current salaries that the salaries are not in line with the current inflation rate of 11%. When we measure these salaries against LEROs & 3rd sec organisations there is a difference of between 15 & 20%. The hardest hit in this current crisis is LEROs and 3rd sec organisations. These organisations are not unionised, and the entire 3rd Sector does not have the support structure or a platform to say, ‘look, we've been getting the crumbs off the table for such a long time, and now we need to see that investment coming into the 3rd Sector and LEROs. We can't live on the current salaries. I believe that 3rd sec organisation underpins this country, and we seen this when COVID hit and the country shut down and shut their doors to the most vulnerable people in our communities, when people walked out, we walked in! We kept our foodbanks open; we kept our housing projects open, we went into the prisons when all other organisations walked out and worked from home and when people could not get on line support because of digital poverty we provided the equipment (with the help of our amazing funders may I add) and went and handed this to our most vulnerable and done door step training to access zoom & teams, this was all done without any recognition or applause.
Currently, when employing people on a living wage, you are already putting them at risk of not being able to afford basic needs, due to inflation. Then you've got statutory organisations paying people £26,000-£28,000, and NHS paying people £28,000+. This puts LEROs and the 3rd Sector at the bottom of the ladder.
LEROs have an in-house training model to develop people while they progress through the organisation from being clients to employment (The Well grow your own model). We offer them support along the entire journey. And this support involves training but also environmental and emotional support and companion coaching. Remember, we are talking about people who are at high risk of relapsing back into addiction. Our support is 24/7, and the entire professional development is based on strong bonds and family values, connection and leading by example by more senior members of our community. We do this to set and uphold high standards. We put all this time and effort in. Then the statutory organisations or the NHS come along and offer higher salaries than we can afford for the same job, further depleting the pool that is already running dry. Lived Experience is a unique and specialist service, we should not be seeing NHS & statuary services employing and trying to manage lived experience when there is a LERO in their local area. For some with a complete lack of experience and understanding of how to manage, support and supervise POLEs can lead to relapse. I have seen this time and again over my 17 years working in this sector. I have used my experience and participation in research to develop training for managers on how to manage, support and supervise POLEs in the workplace, without adequate training and experience then these organisations could cause more harm than good. One of the other concerns we have when trying to employ people into the organisation, is often they reject the offer because they say, ‘it's better off on the benefits than being employed’. This clearly reinforces the message that there is no advantage in working. This has got to change.
We must change how we see POLE in the employment context. Society, employers, and the funding providers should start seeing them as professionals with lived experience and paying them as such. LEROs and 3rd Sector organisations are in the same types of job roles as other professionals but are not valued as such, and we need to be seen, valued and heard. Following the Review on Drugs part 2 by Dame Carol Black, some change is already emerging. It highlighted the importance of lived experience for the entire Sector. But I would take it a step further, by changing the language and refer to people as professionals with lived experience. You can look at me in my position as CEO and some of our staff and others in other charitable organisations. We have further-reaching qualifications and experience than many professionals working within the Sector.
There is a clear need to see the salaries of LEROs and people with lived experience working in the 3rd Sector increase. At present, it is not a fair system, where all this work and experience brought to the Sector does not seem to be appropriately rewarded or recognised as an integral part of the treatment and recovery system. I see it as silent stigma and not valuing the lived experience as a profession, which provides far more insight into helping others in similar circumstances than any textbook can teach us. We cannot say we value LEROs and Lived Experience and that they are an equal stakeholder in the treatment of addiction and recovery if we still pay them a salary that is not in line with other salaries within the sector, we must bring about change now.