Federation Chamber

Private Member’s Business

Our aged care workforce has done exceptional work at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic. Their job is among the hardest of all essential workers.

In March, coronavirus was slated to kill our aged care residents in their thousands. Aged care providers put in place tough visitation rules to protect lives. This has caused immeasurable sadness for both residents and workers. In the end, it’s an aged care worker telling a husband, a daughter, a grandson that they can’t visit the ones they love.

Our aged care workers have been patient, compassionate and professional during this difficult time. Residents reported high levels of stress and confusion, aware of how vulnerable they were. News stories about outbreaks in aged care facilities stoked fears. Rigorous social distancing and hygiene requirements made everything slower and more difficult.

There are easier and safer ways to make a living than working in aged care. Our workforce could have quit. But this would have been disastrous in a sector already suffering entrenched chronic understaffing. Not to mention losing the continuity of care so important to wellbeing.

The retention bonus, announced in March, was intended to keep workers in their roles through the worst of the crisis. We know our aged care workforce isn’t doing it just to make a buck. But payments of up to $800 for residential aged care and $600 for home care workers, for two quarters, was a welcome acknowledgement of hard work in tough circumstances.

In March, the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians said this payment would be ‘after tax’. He actually emailed me to tell me this. But last week we discover it will be ‘before tax’. This backflip isn’t just a minor accounting error. According to peak body Leading Aged Services Australia (LASA), the typical aged care worker will lose at least 30 per cent of the retention bonus due to this change.

This is an appalling reversal of an initiative that won widespread support from the sector when it was announced. The reasons for the reversal are still not clear. And with women making up 87 per cent of workers in residential care and 89 per cent per cent in home care, yet again it’s women bearing the brunt of this change.

We have a perverse situation where Jobkeeper has made some 17 to 18 year olds, who before only did a couple of shifts, very rich indeed, while a small bonus is clawed back from one of the most underpaid and casualised workforces in Australia. From people who have actually earned it – mainly from women who have earned it.

It is not too late to fix this. The retention bonus opens today. I call on the Minister to honour his original commitment.

The pandemic has also thrown into sharp relief the understaffing of aged care facilities. From my time on the board of St Catherine’s Hostel in Wangaratta, I know that our workforce does incredible work with dedication and care.

But across the sector, there are simply not enough adequately skilled staff. According to research published in the Medical Journal of Australia, 60 per cent of residents are living in aged care homes with ”unacceptable” staffing levels. This is neglect, with deadly consequences.

On only my fourth day in this place, I supported the Member for Mayo’s Bill calling for mandatory disclosure of staffing ratios. This will help families and older Australians make more informed choices about the facilities they consider. The Member for Mayo’s 2018 bill was supported by the Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport, which had previously gone one step further and recommended introducing mandatory minimum staffing levels – which I also support as a matter of urgency.

Some rural residential aged care facilities are concerned that reporting is burdensome and that ratios will spell the end of their service. I understand this and their concerns are valid. But we can, and must, improve staffing levels while keeping these small services running. We need a policy remedy to do both things. The Government must step up to make sure we get the balance right.

In the wake of the Black Summer bushfires, I have seen that it is older people who are leading our recovery. They’re the backbone of our local community organisations. They volunteer with the Red Cross, Blaze Aid, the CWA, and emergency food services.

Sometimes it is simply their moral strength and wisdom, gained over many years, which brings so much comfort to our communities. In return, we owe it to our older Australians, and those charged with their care – respect and dignity, and our appreciation.

[June 15, 2020]

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