Families who pay for overnight care for loved ones with a learning disability could be forced to find tens of thousands of pounds in back pay for carers, a charity has said.
A change in guidance on pay for carers who provide so-called "sleep-in" care could leave some families liable for as much as £50,000, the Royal Mencap Society said.
Mencap has been campaigning over the issue, saying the change in Government guidance could leave the learning disability sector with a back-pay bill of £400 million.
The charity said that since 1999, care homes operated under advice that time spent asleep by care staff in residential homes and supported living residences did not count as work time for the purposes of the National Minimum Wage (NMW).
The payment of a flat rate ''on call'' allowance had been the norm across the sector ever since, it said.
Following two employment tribunals, new guidance in October last year recognised that the previous guidance was wrong and the NMW should be paid for sleep time instead.
Mencap has estimated that the total bill for back pay for the care sector - in some cases dating back six years - could be £400 million.
The charity is calling on the Government to foot the bill.
Now it has also said that many individual families could also be affected - having previously paid employees an "on call" rate to be with their loved ones overnight.
Mencap chairman Derek Lewis said: "Although Government has recognised the seriousness of this issue, its failure to accept responsibility for earlier incorrect guidance on the payment to care workers for overnight 'sleep-in' support is causing uncertainty and anxiety for ordinary families as well as the care sector.
"Care providers who rely on Government funding to pay for the community- based care of adults with serious learning disabilities are being asked to find £400 million from their own resources to fund back-payments.
"While ordinary families, who pay for their own care are facing personal liabilities of up to £50K. All because the original Government interpretation of how care workers should be paid under the National Minimum Wage was wrong.
"The learning disability sector is under threat as never before. For Mencap, it is the worst crisis that the charity has faced in its 70-year history."
Last month, the Government announced that it will waive historic financial penalties owed by employers who have underpaid their workers for overnight sleep-in shifts before July 26 this year and temporarily suspend HMRC enforcement activity concerning payment of sleep-in shifts by social care providers until October 2.
But Mencap said neither move addresses the "catastrophic impact" of the back pay bill across the sector.
Game Of Thrones star Kit Harington (pictured) last week urged the public to back Mencap's campaign over the issue.
The petition can be found at: www.mencap.org.uk/sleep-ins-petition
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