The federal government’s promise of up to A$800 between now and May for aged care workers is a short-term political “fix” designed to cover over a long-term policy failure.
Numerous reports have pointed out Australia’s more than 260,000 aged care workers are poorly paid and under-valued.
Women make up more than 80% of the aged care workforce. About a fifth of the workers have culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Their work is often devalued as “women’s work”, with expectations they will work unpaid additional time, split shifts and highly variable hours.
Personal care workers and nurses in aged care are paid 10–15% less than those in health care. Pay rates start at A$22 an hour for personal care workers.
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The Commonwealth’s market model for aged care has also led to high and increasing casualisation and job insecurity, particularly in home care.
Not surprisingly, it’s increasingly difficult to attract and retain staff. Most staffing categories in aged care now have vacancy rates above 10% and staff turnover of between a quarter and a third each year.
Mismanagement of the COVID crisis in aged care has made the problem worse. COVID infections in aged care facilities are now widespread, leading to severe workforce shortages and risks to the quality of care. Basic preventive measures such as the use of boosters for residents, rapid antigen tests and the delivery of proper masks remain problematic.
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So what needs to change?
The need to improve pay and conditions, training and career paths for aged care workers has been recognised for years. A workforce strategy was prepared in 2018 and a work value case for aged care workers was lodged with the Fair Work Commission in 2020. The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety reinforced the importance of addressing these issues.
But in practice, little has been done. Pay rates have not been increased. Personal care workers are not required to have formal aged care qualifications or to be registered. Career paths have not been reformed. And employment standards to prevent casualisation and job insecurity have not been introduced.
In the short term, emergency measures are needed to manage the COVID crisis in aged care. Rapid antigen tests, personal protective equipment, and visits by partners, family and volunteers urgently need to be supported. All residents and the workforce need to be fully (three dose) vaccinated. A quick drive-by, vaccinating only whoever is around, is not good enough.
In the medium term, demand for aged care workers will increase dramatically, particularly in home care where an additional 58,000 workers are likely to be needed to meet planned expansion. Most of these staff will provide personal and domestic care services, and such workers are already hard to find.
The federal government’s one-off A$800 pre-election commitment is unlikely to be enough to fix the problems. What’s needed is better pay and conditions for aged care staff on an on-going basis. A one-off payment doesn’t even scratch the surface.
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When will aged care workers get a pay rise?
The Fair Work Commission is still considering a 25% pay increase, after aged care worker unions put their case for a pay rise forward in November 2020.
The federal government should explicitly state it will fund whatever the independent umpire determines is a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s aged care work. Not to do so would reduce the availability of aged care services.
A new Aged Care Act is due to be introduced shortly. The Aged Care Workforce Industry Council should implement a workforce plan as part of the new Act. The plan should adjust staff roles and workforce organisation to reflect the much greater emphasis on older people’s rights and the delivery of support at home and in the community, rather than in residential facilities.
A more secure, better trained and properly paid aged care workforce will cost the taxpayer more. But without a high-quality, well-supported workforce it will be impossible to deal with the aged care crisis.
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