Few sectors have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic as much as aged care.
Over the past two years, there have been a multitude of stories of residents not receiving enough care due to a lack of staff.
Though life is returning to normal for many, it is not the case for those working and living in aged care.
The staff shortages seen during the pandemic are only set to escalate and have doubled in the past year.
Less than a year ago, I wrote a report for CEDA designed to illustrate the extent of the workforce challenges facing the aged care sector. What I found was alarming.
Looking at the data, I conservatively estimated that Australia was facing a shortage of at least 110,000 aged care workers by 2030 unless action was taken.
This year anecdotally I was hearing across the industry that staff were leaving in droves while the Federal Government made no moves to help stem the flow.
During the COVID-19 pandemic last year, outbreaks in aged care homes decimated the already burnt-out workforce. In a tight labour market, it was little wonder staff were exiting this poorly paid sector and finding other work.
So I revisited the numbers. What I found is a severe escalation in the crisis in just a year. Over this period the annual shortage of workers has doubled.
From an annual shortage of 17,000 to meet basic standards of care, we are now facing a workforce that is 35,000 people short of what it needs to be — and this is each year. What this figure will look like in 2030 is far beyond what was estimated a year ago.
Underlying the figures is the dramatic increase in people leaving the sector. About 65,000 will exit this year. These are people who are not just taking a break from the sector, rather they are leaving permanently.
At a time when we need to be recruiting more workers, we are actively losing them. As workers leave, the demands on the existing workforce compound, exacerbating poor working conditions.
But if we start to address some of the underlying issues and rebuild the workforce we could start to see the opposite — increasing staff levels could start a virtuous cycle where better conditions and job satisfaction encourage more and more staff to enter the industry.
Australia’s halt on migration is another drain on the system. Aged care is an industry that has relied on migration to plug the gaps with migrants representing about 30 per cent of the workforce.
Our migration levels are yet to resume to pre-pandemic levels and visa processing times have blown out significantly. This year, Australia’s net migration is just 41,000 compared to 235,000 per year prior to the pandemic.
A concerning issue is that 35,000 extra workers only covers us for a basic level of care. Australia spends about the OECD average on aged care, but well below the average of countries known for high-quality care such as the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries and Japan.
For our system to meet high quality of care standards we would need an additional 8000 workers each year on top of that 35,000. How we treat the elderly and vulnerable in our community reflects our society as a whole and our aged care system should be able to provide care with dignity and compassion.
The Albanese Government has made commitments to improve aged care standards such as including 24/7 registered nurses in residential aged care and longer mandated care time. The new Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler’s recent commitment to prioritise these reforms is admirable, yet these initiatives will be nearly impossible to achieve without a turnaround in the workforce numbers.
What can be done? Firstly, we need unions, employers and the Federal Government to collaborate to increase award wages in the sector through the work value case currently before the Fair Work Commission.
Secondly, personal-care workers should be recruited directly by adding them to the temporary or permanent skilled-migration lists, or by introducing a new “essential skills” visa.
Finally, industry and governments should develop low-cost retraining options for those returning to the industry to boost skills and attract workers. Without making changes right now, we have no hope of improving the crisis facing the sector.
Continuing to ignore this problem will not make it go away.
This article was originally published in the West Australian on 28 June 2022.
Download: Duty of care: Aged care sector in crisis