It’s being dubbed as ‘tokenistic’, a ‘sugar-fix’ and a ‘disingenuous’ election ploy: experts and industry figureheads are unanimously criticising the short-sighted nature of the Federal Government’s once-off bonus payment to aged care workers.
Announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday, $209 million has been set aside to provide aged care workers in government-subsidised home care, as well as workers providing direct care, food or cleaning services in residential care, a total of two, once-off payments of up to $400 each in the coming months.
Distinguished Professor Sara Charlesworth is the director of RMIT University’s Centre for People, Organisation and Work and professor of Gender, Work and Regulation in the School of Management at RMIT.
She says that the once-off bonus payment “just doesn’t cut it.”
“We know there is a crisis in staffing in aged care. This is too little too late and we need the Federal Government to commit to an ongoing wage increase for frontline aged care workers,” she says.
On the contrary, federal superannuation minister, Senator Jane Hume, told the ABC on Tuesday that the Government will not explicitly support the move.
“A $5 per hour increase would dramatically increase the costs of an aged care workforce. We want to make sure that this is a sustainable system going into the future,” she said.
This seems to be a sentiment held by the Government alone.
Charlesworth tells Aged Care News that providers would prefer higher wages over temporary, stop-gap measures.
“What’s interesting, and quite cheering in a way, is that often when there are cases before the Fair Work Commission, the employers will say, ‘no, no, no, that’s far too much’.
“In this case, the provider peaks and indeed, also some of the aged care advocacy groups like Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia have issued a consensus statement, basically saying that they support a wage increase. Which is really important.”
The written statement, a result of industry-wide meetings convened by the Aged Care Workforce Industry Council in December, was signed by organisations including LASA and ACSA, stating:
“The stakeholders agree that wages in the aged care sector need to be significantly increased because the work of aged care workers has been historically undervalued for a range of reasons and has not been properly assessed by the Fair Work Commission or any other industrial tribunal.
“Minimum wages in awards need to be set according to the value of the work done by workers in aged care, recognising increases in the complexity of the nature of the work and skills and responsibility involved in doing the work and changes to the conditions under which work is done.”
However, Charlesworth notes that the Government refused to partake in the collaboration between aged care service providers and the unions, claiming that wages are the sole responsibility of providers.
“And that’s actually rubbish,” Charlesworth says, “because who provides the funding? The Federal Government…”
It has been disingenuous, because Fair Work Commission is not going to recommend a wage increase that has no hope of being implemented.
“So unless the Federal Government comes to the party and says that they will support it, then it makes the whole case very difficult.
“And, in fact, the royal commission said that while the department of health seemed to not want to take responsibility for aged care it did, in fact, have responsibility and really needed to step up and be far more active.”
She adds that it really is non-negotiable: wage rises for workers are a necessary insurance that the industry will be able to provide adequate care to Australia’s growing aged population.
“We’ve got to do something about the wages and conditions of aged care workers, because that is directly linked to the quality of aged care.
“If you don’t have enough workers, if you don’t have enough trained workers, if [services] are always short-staffed, for example, you’re not going to be able to provide quality care.
“We’ve seen that writ large in terms of what’s been happened under COVID.”
The Australian Council of Social Services also shares Charlesworth’s dissatisfaction, issuing a statement noting that, since the Federal Government has signed off on $16 billion worth of “high end tax cuts”, the suggestion that aged care workforce reforms are fiscally unsustainable “beggars belief”.
“Aged care workers on $40,000 get token one-off $400 payments ; people on $400,000 get permanent tax cuts worth $180 a week. In what universe is that a prudent and fair use of public funds?” the statement reads.
Stuart Miller, chief executive officer of home-care provider myHomecare, tells Aged Care News that whilst the payment is a much needed cash boost for struggling aged care workers, it is insufficient to address the root of workforce problems in the sector.
“I actually applaud the notion of it, yet you have to recognise what this is. This is a retention payment… this is a short term bribe… but it’s not structurally fixing anything.
“It’s a sugar hit. And we all like a bit of sugar occasionally, but it doesn’t fix things in the long run.
“What we have to do in the long run is be comparable to other social service sectors.
“We can’t forget that we’re still heading down towards minimum wage for most of our staff and they are doing a really tough job: they are on the frontline protecting the most vulnerable cohort.
“I know they’ll say, ‘providers are going to have to pony-up with this’ and we will and we absolutely have to, but to put this in context, 50 per cent of the industry is losing money.”
Miller says that whilst providers are keen to reward the hard-work of their staff with fair wages, greater funding by Government, especially within home care packages, is absolutely necessary.
“I first started in the sector over 15 years ago, and the amount of care was really triple what you receive now in an equivalent package, and that’s just bracket creep.
“If you pay staff more, the hourly rate will go up and the rate that’s charged to home care packages will go up.
“If the [government subsidies for] home care packages don’t go up, that just means significantly less care for those people.”