Opinion article

Radical reform needed to staff aged care sector

For too long the important recommendations of many reviews into the aged care sector have been ignored in favour of piecemeal reform. As a result, we are now experiencing a one in one-hundred-year pandemic layered on a sector already in serious trouble – the Royal Commission found over 30 per cent of people accessing aged care services had experienced substandard care. It is no wonder that our Prime Minster has labelled the situation a “crisis”.

The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have been most striking in Australia’s aged care sector. It’s staff and residents have lived day-to-day with the burden and impacts of lockdowns – residents confined to their individual rooms, uncertainties and delays in vaccine and booster roll outs, and difficulties accessing PPE and more recently rapid antigen tests. Not to mention that a large proportion of Australia’s deaths from the pandemic have been from aged-care residents.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia’s aged care sector faced significant hurdles – growing demand from an aging population combined with poor wages and working conditions leading to a shortage of qualified staff. COVID-19 and the lure of other careers in the face of Australia’s skills shortage crisis have only intensified the pressures.

The human impact of this is evident to anyone who has spent time at an aged care residence. Exhausted staff, staff and volunteers scrambling to cover shortages in caring and support roles, residents who have missed regular contact and social activities, and staff and residents saddened by the loss of those close to them. Not to mention the toll on families and friends who have lost vulnerable loved ones.

It is no wonder that staff are exiting this poorly paid sector and finding other work where so many other opportunities abound in a tight labour market. The problem is that every worker lost from the sector now makes the longer-term challenge greater.

CEDA’s Duty of Care: Meeting the Aged Care Workforce Challenge found that by 2030, Australia will face a shortfall of 110,000 workers in the aged care sector, increasing to more than 400,000 by 2050. Since the report was released, these figures seem very conservative compared to what those in the industry are seeing.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that 234,000 workers in the sector will receive a bonus of up to $800 this year is too little too late. The Federal government has dismissed calls to permanently increase the wages of workers, but it is impossible to see how we resolve the long-term crisis in the sector without doing that and more. The proposal to engage defence force personnel as a last-ditch attempt to sustain the sector illustrates the dismal state it is in.

This plan and the bonus fails to address the long-term challenges facing those in aged care: low wages, lack of career progression; poor training outcomes; and negative perceptions of the sector that have only been heightened in the pandemic with its high-risk of transmission environment.

What the Federal government should do is announce sustained initiatives to make careers in the aged-care sector more attractive. This means wages need to increase permanently. Unions, employers and the Federal government should collaborate to increase award wages in the sector including increased pay for increased responsibility to enable long-term career progression. This should be combined with a review of minimum shift lengths and paid travel time.

Migration can play a part in addressing this crisis quickly – around 30 per cent of the current aged care workforce comprises migrant workers. Developing a strategic and sustainable approach to the role of migration which complements our domestic education and training system will be critical. That also means thinking carefully about how attract and retain high-quality, skilled care workers.

The pandemic has put into stark relief how far we still need to go to provide quality care for our elderly citizens. Every day we delay implementing critical reforms just makes the task harder.

About the authors

Cassandra Winzar

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Cassandra Winzar is Senior Economist (WA) at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). Prior to joining CEDA she was Principal Economist at the WA Department of Communities (Housing Authority) where she focused on WA economic conditions and housing related research, including running the state government’s Housing Industry Forecasting Group. Cassandra has also held roles as the WA based Economist for the Reserve Bank of Australia, and in Transfer Pricing at EY. Cassandra has a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) and Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) from the University of Western Australia.