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ROYAL COMMISSION: Aged care is “working [staff] into poverty”

The third day of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety had a panel of industry unions and peak bodies, who discussed the poor pay and conditions for workers in aged care, and believe staff are undervalued by aged care providers.

Industry peak bodies and unions panel on the third day of hearings: Jenny Field from LASA and Clare Tunny from United Voice. [Source: Aged Care Royal Commission]
Industry peak bodies and unions panel on the third day of hearings: Jenny Field from LASA and Clare Tunny from United Voice. [Source: Aged Care Royal Commission]

On the panel was Lisa Alcock from Health Workers Union, Paul Gilbert from Australian Nurse and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), Darren Mathewson from Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA), Clare Tunny from United Voice and Jenna Field from Leading Aged Services Australia (LASA).

The Commission asked what the current frustrations were for members of the peak bodies and unions.

Ms Alcock says the two main problems they hear about often at that Health Workers Union, is around the alarming rate of occupational violence they experience, which is something that “you have to accept when you work in aged care”, and the low pay.

“The incredibly low rate of pay is something that you have to similarly accept and it’s hard to accept because I feel that you can’t have a high quality of care if you have workers working poor and working them into poverty, essentially,” says Ms Alcock.

“When employers we are bargaining with – I don’t want to use the word “cry poor” but when they come to us and say they just don’t have the funding because the Government mechanisms and structures just don’t provide [the] level of funding to be able to provide the increase in wages…

“...But I mean, in terms of the quality of care that we can expect from our workforce – you just can’t accept it, when they’re working poor. You can’t accept a high quality of care from workers on $21 an hour.”

Mr Gilbert from ANMF says their members were concerned about staffing issues, which he believes is impossible to achieve during bargaining.

While Mr Mathewson from ACSA says the biggest issue they see is the financial constraints around developing good enterprise bargaining agreements that provide for enhanced wages and conditions for employees.

He believes that the sector needs to at least have a remuneration increase of at least 15 percent across the board, which was indicated in the Aged Care Workforce Strategy report.

Ms Tunny says the United Voice members seem to have a mix of all the above problems.

She explains, “We consistently hear that they’re concerned about low pay, the erosion of existing conditions, that they don’t have adequate training, they don’t have manageable workloads, that there aren’t enough staff on the floor and that they have significant concerns about job security.”

Ms Field talked about the current aged care modern award, which she says has been under review since 2014. Currently, the minimum rates for a full time aged care worker ranges from $20 to $25 an hour.

Although, Mr Gilbert says they have found workplaces paying lower than that, with Ms Tunney adding, “I think it says that aged care workers are really undervalued.”

Mr Gilbert says if they are to achieve ratios in aged care, it’s not going to come from providers, but from a Commonwealth level.

The aged care paradox

Another panel of industry experts was held on day four of the Royal Commission, except it consisted of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of aged care providers.

Speaking on the panel was Richard Hearn, CEO of Resthaven; Jason Howie, CEO of KinCare Health Services; Kerri Rivett, CEO of Shepparton Retirement Villages, and Sandra Hills, CEO of Benetas (Anglican Aged Care Services).

Counsel Assisting asked the panel about the current paradox presenting itself at the Commission, the fact that most providers are operating under the same funding but only some providers are providing terrific services while the others provide substandard care.

Ms Hill says that good care starts with the culture of the organisation, and that has to begin at the very top.

She suggests that some influences on substandard care could be around whether an aged care is encouraging staff to report issues or complaints and how they handle substandard care.

Mr Howie explained that the Home Care sector has similar challenges to what is happening in residential care, but the significant transformation in the industry are very different and need to be handled differently.

“What I see across the industry at the moment is a whole series of organisations that are in different stages of addressing some of those challenges,” says Mr Howie.

“There is this constant tension between the flexibility that our customers are requesting from us and the stability that our employees are requesting in order to build solid, consistent rosters and consistency of income.”

Commissioner Tony Pagone QC asked Mr Hearn about what board members are actually meant to be doing, saying, “Often for Board members, it’s a matter of preparing for the quarterly meeting, looking as though they’re awake during the length of the meeting and hoping that nothing comes up, that hasn’t been dealt with by the CEO.”

Mr Hearn says all board members at Resthaven have minimum requirements they need to meet which is monitored, but they see commitment and engagement from their board members.

Counsel Assisting brought up the Pollaers taskforce report, that was discussed at the hearings on Monday, and that aged care management had a much more “rosy, optimistic view” of the relationship between management and staff, than what the staff themselves were experiencing.

Ms Hills says, “We want our staff to jump out of bed in the morning and go, “Woohoo. I’m going to Benetas to work today. And we’ve got a bit of work to do – needless to say.”

Counsel Assisting asked the panel how the industry can get people jumping out of bed in the morning and excited to go to work in the industry.

Mr Hearn believes anything will be difficult to achieve if the Government isn’t there to support action.

“We need assistance to actually improve those outcomes for older people and for those staff that are committed to those outcomes,” says Mr Hearn.

Ms Rivett believes attracting young people into the aged care workforce would be beneficial for the industry, especially while there is an ageing workforce.

“I think there’s a lot of passion out there in the industry… I think I’ve been working in this industry for a while… and what drives me is that one day I’m going to be old, and I want to be able to design a system where I want to live in, and I’ve got some choice and control about my life,” says Ms Rivett.

Ms Hills referred back to the Pollaers taskforce report, saying the answers are there ready to be implemented, and that would be a good start to fixing the problems in the aged care workforce. 

She also brought up the Minister for Aged Care, Richard Colbeck, and her disappointment that the Minister for Aged Care has other huge portfolios, including as Minister for Ageing, Minister for Sport and Minister for Youth. 

Aged Care working conditions is pushing out passionate staff

On the last day of the Royal Commission, the court heard from assistant in nursing, Lavina Luboya, she is an agency staff member placed at two residential aged care facilities in Western Australia.

She described herself as passionate about aged care and helping older people in nursing homes. 

Ms Luboya provided a statement to the Commission about the poor staffing at both facilities, which is causing her a lot of fatigue and making her look at other career options even though she loves the industry and the work.

“When we work short-staffed, consideration about safety goes in the bin. Even though management are aware that we are short, it feels like they expect for us to make miracles and safety is not considered,” says Ms Luboya.

“Aged care is the end for a lot of residents. Despite that, I know that I can make a difference. A lot of the residents don’t have family and we’re their only families. I gain satisfaction in my job from seeing the residents smile and knowing that I made a difference. I have found that all staff are on the same page with me. 

“My job is different every day and you can never predict what will happen. I really like what I am doing but I’m not sure about the future, and the pay could be a lot better but for now, it’s okay. I’m considering other options because I’m always exhausted after my shifts.”

“...If there were more staff and better equipment I might stay in aged care but management refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem. They always just say that they have a budget and it makes me feel like management don’t care about the fact that work is often unsafe.”

The next Royal Commission hearings run from November 4-6 in Mudgee, New South Wales, focussing on aged care in regional areas.

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