THE owner of eight city care homes is refusing to pay staff extra for working on Christmas Day and Boxing Day – because it said it cannot recognise one religious festival over others.
Guinness Care and Support said it had an "ethical belief in equality" which meant it did not favour Christmas over other religious celebrations and cannot pay staff extra for working them.
It said it only paid bonuses for bank holidays, which rules out Christmas Day and Boxing Day this year because they fall at the weekend.
Scores of care workers who provide 24-hour care for elderly people were told of the pay arrangements during meetings this week.
One member of staff, who asked not to be named, said they were stunned by the announcement: "We have learnt that senior head office management have decided that all staff who work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day will be paid standard flat rate wages with no bonuses whatsoever.
"The management themselves are on two weeks' annual leave. It has come as a shock and left us all stunned."
The worker added: "Due to the nature of the work we expect to work festive times and give up our own time with our families knowing we are giving time, care and support to those who are unfortunate enough to need to live in care homes.
"But for the management to deem that we do not deserve some sort of bonus – like the majority of other employees at this time of year – is not a reflection of their mantra of care and support in the community. It obviously excludes their own staff."
Mick Green, senior human resources manager for Guinness Care and Support, said he appreciated the hard work of staff who will keep the homes running throughout the festive period.
But he said: "We would like to make our position on pay clear – we have a strong ethical belief in equality and diversity and are unable to recognise one religious festival over others.
"Our policy is not to pay extra when staff work during a religious festival."
Mr Green said there was a statutory responsibility to recognise bank holidays, and people working on Monday, December 27 and Tuesday, December 28, would receive extra pay as outlined in their contracts.
He added: "We were concerned to hear that the Echo had been contacted by a member of staff to express their dissatisfaction at Guinness Care and Support's working and pay arrangements in our care homes over the Christmas period.
"We would like to stress that many of our office-based staff will also be working over the Christmas period in order to support staff in our homes during this busy time.
"It is not the case that our offices will close for two weeks over Christmas."
Exeter Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said he would be contacting Guinness Care and Support for a more comprehensive explanation of its position. He said: "I am surprised at their stance. We are still an overwhelmingly Christian society and Christmas is a religious festival and a public holiday. Other religious festivals are not public holidays and I do not think Guinness is comparing like with like.
"Christmas Day is the one day that people want to be with their loved ones and if they have to work on that day they should be paid accordingly."
Hugo Swire, Conservative MP for East Devon, said: "I can give you my reaction in one word – bonkers."
Sarah Austin, an employment expert at Exeter's Foot Anstey solicitors, said: "Unless there is a contractual provision to the contrary, employers aren't actually obliged to pay more than the standard rate of pay to employees who work on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.
"But they will sometimes exercise their discretion to do so in the interests of maintaining good relations with their employees."
Guinness Care and Support runs more than 20 residential homes across Devon looking after hundreds of elderly people.
In Exeter it owns Barnfield House in Alphington, Churchill House in Denmark Road, Colleton Lodge in Colleton Crescent, Salutary Mount in Fore Street, Heavitree, Fair Bungalows, Cowick Lane, Franklyn Drive, St Thomas, Jack Simpson House in North Street, Heavitree and Longcombe in Ludwell Lane.