Fears of aged care industry exodus as unions slam cash payments for workers

The federal government is being warned that one-off cash payments to aged care workers will not stem a flood of staff leaving the industry.

The Prime Minister will use a speech to the National Press Club today to announce two $ 400 payments will be made to aged care workers across the country, in recognition of the extraordinary pressure the sector is under.

More aged care residents died of COVID-19 in January this year than in total last year.

Last month unions and industry groups made a combined call for federal intervention, suggesting cash payments to workers and even the deployment of the military to ease staffing pressures.

They argued the Omicron wave had exposed “unresolved systemic funding and workforce issues” that pre-dated the pandemic.

National president of the Health Services Union, Gerard Hayes, was fiercely critical of the payments.

Gerard Hayes speaks out against a new Government ambulance plan.
Union president Gerard Hayes says the federal government has known there is a workforce crisis in aged care “for a long time”.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

“This is a period where aged care workers need diamonds, and trinkets will not do what’s required,” he said.

“And giving convenient $ 400 payments prior to an election is just insulting to aged care people.”

Staff watching colleagues walk out the door

Aged care workers have described staffing shortages compounding as pressures force staff out of the industry, potentially for good.

Fiona, an aged care worker and HSU member from northern New South Wales who only wanted to use her first name, said many of her colleagues had decided the work was no longer worth the stress.

A close-up shot of a hand resting on an elderly woman's hands.
Aged care workers are frustrated more was not done to boost staffing while COVID-19 cases were low.(Pixabay: sabinevanerp)

“We’ve had a lot [of staff] leave – I would say six to eight in the last month, “she said.

“People have left because they are tired, not because they are retiring.

Her aged care facility is currently in lockdown due to COVID-19 cases. She said the staffing shortages placed stress on residents too.

She said inconsistent meal times, bathing times and a constant rotation of staff left some residents anxious and confused.

She is frustrated more is not done to bolster staffing ranks across the sector while case numbers are low.

“COVID wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when,” she said.

“We all knew it was coming.

“When it did hit, we did not have the staff ready to cover shifts.”

Aged care staff being ‘poached’ by other health sectors

Some in the industry say they are watching with concern as staff leave to take up other options in the healthcare sector, particularly around the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Sean Rooney from Leading Age Services Australia said it was a trend that had accelerated over the past year or so.

An elderly man in silhouette sitting in a chair looking at trees.
Experts say better pay is critical to bringing more staff into the aged care industry.(ABC News: Natasha Johnson)

“What we have seen is workers leaving, or identifying their intention to leave the sector because they do feel that they are overworked and undervalued,” he said.

“Aged care staff are being poached – for want of a better term – by other areas of the health sector, to be able to provide services, and that’s our concern.

“With an aging population, we need to attract and retain more people into the sector.”

He said better pay was critical to bringing more people into aged care, and it was something his organization was pushing the federal government on.

Labor critical of ‘panicked’ cash bonuses for staff

A man in a suit stands outside, it looks very cold.
Labor has promised to lift funding for the aged care sector if elected, but is yet to detail specific promises.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

The federal opposition has criticized the cash bonuses for aged care staff, tying the announcement to the looming federal election.

Labor has promised to lift funding for the aged care sector should it be elected, but is yet to detail specific promises.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has suggested the federal government make a submission supporting a case launched by the Health Services Union in the Fair Work Commission.

The union is seeking pay rises of 25 per cent for staff.

Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the $ 400 payments were not what workers needed.

“They deserve a sustainable solution.”

“This is the thanks that Australian aged care workers get – to be treated as political panic buying – when they need a sustainable outcome.”

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