Aged care is one of the biggest growth areas of the Australian economy. But unlike mining, the aged care boom has so far failed to deliver major gains in wages and conditions of those who work in the sector. Jobs are low paid — not to mention unglamorous — and staff turnover rates are high.
Some of this could be about to change after the recent announcement by the Gillard Government of an aged care overhaul. The plan, while ultimately aimed at helping the increasing number of elderly Australians in need, promises to fuel a boom in new employment opportunities in aged care, and a significant improvement in the wages and conditions of those working in the sector.
$1.2 billion has been pledged to help the sector attract and retain staff by improving wages, conditions and career structures. To qualify for assistance, care providers will have to pay above minimum award wages – including to nurses and ancillary workers – and operate within enterprise bargaining agreements.
Providers receiving the so-called federal wage supplement will also have to pay minimum annual wage increases and commit to a series of other workplace conditions, including:
*Giving aged care workers access to formal training and education.
*Providing flexible working arrangements to help employees achieve work-life balance.
*Regularly reviewing the working hours of part-time employees.
Aged care providers with fewer than 50 employees will be exempt from the requirement to have an enterprise agreement.
The Minister for Ageing, Mark Butler, says that over the four years of the plan, personal and community care workers now on minimum award rates will receive increases of almost 20 per cent. Enrolled nurses are in line for 25 per cent increases and registered nurses almost 30 per cent.
“This will go a long way to improving the capacity of the aged care sector to attract and importantly to retain the quality dedicated aged care workers that we need,” Mr Butler said.
Aged care employees, more than half of whom are women and many part-time, currently earn an average of just $18 an hour – a situation described by United Voice national secretary Louise Tarrant in February as a national disgrace. The low pay and poor conditions have been blamed for the sector’s staggering 25 per cent annual staff turnover rate.
According to the Government, the sector will need more than 800,000 additional workers by 2050. In 2010 there were 304,000 aged care workers.
Many of the new employment opportunities will be in home care, with the number of tailored home-care packages to be increased by 40,000 to 100,000 over three years. Another 40,000 residential care places will also be created.
The changes will be a centrepiece of the May 8 budget, and the Coalition has vowed to adopt a bipartisan approach to aged care. However, there are already questions over how much of the government’s plan will actually be delivered.
Coalition leader Tony Abbott, who could be prime minister before end of this year, has attacked a key part of the package that would require self-funded retirees to pay a bigger share of their aged care costs. Mr Abbott said he would not be commenting in detail about the reforms until later.
Coalition aged-care spokeswoman Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was more expansive, attacking the requirement on employers to strike new enterprise agreements. She claimed it was using aged care providers to subsidise union membership growth.
Employers have also warned that the $1.2 billion is not enough to deliver substantial change because it “rebadges” money withdrawn from aged-care providers last year.
Catholic Health Australia chief executive Martin Laverty was quoted in The Australian saying the funding was a “drop in the ocean” compared to the industry’s needs. “It will take a whole lot more than rebadged money to improve pay and attract more people to the sector,” he said.
He also criticised the imposition of enterprise agreements. “A government funding contract should not require an industrial outcome,” Mr Laverty told The Australian.
This is a federal election year, and we are certain to hear more argument over the aged care package in the lead-up to September 14. But while the detail may be far from settled, it is reassuring that all sides of politics are at least agreed on the need to boost the aged care sector.