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Aged care wages: tackling pay in ‘the forgotten industry’

Care workers and nurses in aged care are speaking out about low wages

The longstanding issue of low wages for care workers and nurses in residential aged care is back in focus as a Senate committee investigates the sector’s workforce. But is anything likely to change? 

“We are some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia,” says Brenda Oganyo, a personal care worker of 10 years.

“Most of us earn around $20 an hour and yet we are responsible for the day-to-day care of the older generation.”

Many care workers are permanent part-time or casual, so they find it difficult to get loans while their superannuation is almost non-existent, Oganyo says.

“I have been in this industry for 10 years and our wages have not changed much.”

Oganyo is one of several personal care workers and nurses working in aged care who have appeared before the current Senate inquiry into the aged care workforce as it holds public hearings around the country.

The issue of pay in the sector has become a recurring theme at the hearings and looks set to feature strongly in the inquiry’s final report.

Under the current aged care award, minimum weekly pay for personal care workers starts at $715 (level 1) and increases to $868 (level 7).

Put another way, many are earning around half the average full-time adult weekly wage in Australia, which the ABS puts at $1,516.

For assistants in nursing, enrolled nurses and registered nurses, minimum wage rates are similarly low.

  • A first-year AIN in aged care earns $734 a week minimum compared to a first-year AIN in a NSW public hospital on $820 a week.
  • An EN in aged care starts on $797 a week minimum while an EN in a NSW public hospital earns $1,029 a week.
  • An RN in aged care starts on $853 a week minimum compared to an RN in a NSW public hospital who earns $1,142 a week.

It’s important to note these are minimum rates of pay as set out by the Fair Work Ombudsman, and many aged care providers pay above them.

But this only underscores the point that pay is a central factor in the sector’s long-standing recruitment and retention woes; the providers that pay above award rates are often the same organisations that report fewer issues with attracting and keeping staff.

As Joanne Christie, chief of people and culture at The Bethanie Group, a major provider in Western Australia, told the Senate inquiry:

“We pay exceptionally well in the industry. We are one of the top-five payers for WA, and we would pay about $23.50 an hour. We are finding it OK to attract people at that rate at the moment.”

Money matters, especially when aged care facilities are competing with others in the health system, as Southern Cross Care’s Pearl facility told the inquiry’s Darwin hearing.

“Twice a year the hospital here recruits a large number of personal care workers and we have a mass exodus at that time,” said Sylvia Treacy, residential services manager.

Brett Holmes, general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, said his union compared pay rates and found those manning checkouts for Woolworths got paid more than AINs.

“Like it or not, wages matter. Being able to put food on the table and a roof over your head really does matter when you are choosing [jobs],” Holmes told the inquiry.

The value of work

Many aged care workers feel they are under-appreciated and the low rates of pay simply reflect the value that society places on their work.

Therese Jefferson

In fact, many resent the lack of recognition that is signalled by the low pay, says Therese Jefferson, a Professor in Curtin University’s Graduate School of Business.

Jefferson was part of a research team that surveyed 4,000 women working in aged care and found the low pay and perceived worth of the work had an adverse effect on their motivation to stay in the sector.

“The low pay did two things; firstly it makes it harder to survive if you’re trying to live on a low wage, but secondly we found that even the workers who could afford to stay working in aged care, often because they had a partner who was better paid, really resented the lack of recognition that was indicated by that low pay,” Jeffersen tells Australian Ageing Agenda.

“There was a feeling that the community doesn’t care about the work they’re doing even though it’s really important, and that had an adverse effect on people’s motivations to stay in the sector,” she says.

Inadequate super another blow

Which leads to the other structural issue facing aged care workers and nurses: a career earning low wages, often on a part-time or casual basis and with periods out of the workforce to raise children, means many are looking at disturbingly low superannuation balances.

Mary Delahunty

Mary Delahunty, general manager business development and policy at HESTA, the superannuation fund covering many of the sector’s care workers and nurses, says the typical fund member is 43 years old and has around $18,000 in her superannuation account.

“At the moment women are retiring with around 44 per cent less super than men – across all sectors, not just health and community services,” Delahunty tells AAA.

“Health and community services will see a bigger gap between women and men because they have a bigger pay equity gap. On average we’re seeing a $142,000 gap in retirement savings in the sector as a whole,” she says.

HESTA has been advocating on the gender pay gap and the low retirement savings for sector workers, and while Delahunty welcomes the increased recognition of the issue in recent years she’s concerned about the apparent lack of will among policymakers and government to tackle it.

Action on funding needed: providers

At the Senate inquiry’s hearings, aged care providers have been laying the blame for the sector’s low wages with the Commonwealth, which sets the level of funding providers receive.

Catholic Health Australia noted that 70 per cent of providers’ revenue comes from the taxpayer and the Commonwealth caps the level of funding it provides for individuals.

Aged and Community Services Australia tells AAA that both the ongoing reforms to aged care and the work underway on a new funding model for residential aged care should take into account the wages of care workers and nurses.

ACSA and fellow provider peaks have developed an Aged Care Strategy Framework to progress the workforce domain of the Aged Care Sector Committee’s Aged Care Roadmap, which details the sector’s position on necessary reforms in aged care.

Leading Age Services Australia also points to the framework, saying provider peaks have written to the government recommending workers and consumers also be engaged in the strategy’s development.

Read the full in-depth report on wages in the current issue of AAA magazine (Jan-Feb)

Subscribe to Australian Ageing Agenda magazine 

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10 Responses to Aged care wages: tackling pay in ‘the forgotten industry’

  1. Drew February 8, 2017 at 11:49 pm #

    Hoorah , gets my vote. Fair share for aged care. Over worked, underpaid and rarely thanked.

    Pay parity one of the true values needed in aged care

  2. Dave February 9, 2017 at 11:38 am #

    I’m sure the Senate inquiry will confirm we’re on the right track.

    Why waste precious funds on carers’ wages when there’s a desperate need for more platforms for providers to cry poor, brow-furrowing investigations into the bleeding obvious and incisive research that reveals ‘it’s harder to survive if you’re trying to live on a low wage’.

    Besides, those irresponsible aged care workers would just fritter away the extra money on groceries, rent and electricity bills.

    By the way…if 70% of your revenue comes from the taxpayer, shouldn’t the taxpayer expect 70% of your profits in return?

  3. AA. February 9, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

    Just some thoughts on the value of work: Igot a little bit excited when I read about the Senate committee looking into the aged care workforce. The evidence is clear and beyond doubt, aged care nurses are underpaid and the industry is already subject to large staff turnover. This is at a time when residents and organisations really need stability and well trained nurses who also have valuable experience to provide caring and professional nursing practice. So why is this industry so different from all the others in regards to renumeration for effort and responsibility? Those other industries seem to be able to measure effort and responsibility more accurately and with a better renumeration outcome than what has been happening in aged care nursing for many decades. Unless the good people of this senate enquiry do something different than what has happened in previous investigations, they will have the same outcome. The facts are clear ….. now the ball in in their court and I await to see what actions they will take.

  4. Debbie Walters February 9, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

    An 18 year old at a supermarket gets more per hour than Aged Care Workers, We are responsible for ensuring aged loved ones are safe and secure and are able to participate as fully as possible in their lives. We provide a service that ensures the recipient is able to live their lives free from worries about their day to day activities.
    My wage is $21 per hour, it is hard physical work. We are on our feet for an entire shift, in a seven hour shift we get one 10 minute paid tea break and a 30 minute unpaid meal break.
    We are expected to put up with physical aggression directed towards us and other residents, a distinct lack of manners from a number of residents, and being made to feel as if we are servants rather than what we are which is providing the care needed for the recipient to maintain a level of independence and safety, We provide the care that they need to maintain their independence, we do not intend or try to stop anyone from doing all they are physically and mentally able to do. This helps to extend life and give them a quality of life that would be missing if they had to do all the house keeping/work needed to maintain their lives.

  5. K.LANCE February 13, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

    To quote Joanne Christie/Bethanie Group… “we pay exceptional well in the industry”… she quotes a carers rate but what they have to do for that pittance is to oversee a lot of duties the nurses would do, such as give out medications, simple wound care, gastric feeds etc.
    Most don’t actually want the responsibility!
    In turn the providers employ fewer nurses who are actually paid poorly compared to nurses in the public system.
    If the Senate truly wants to be informed, ask the carers and nurses themselves and NOT management. Often management will recommend someone who is a YES person which does NOT reveal the true picture of what is happening in the industry.

  6. Lesley Marsh February 13, 2017 at 11:51 pm #

    I agree with all of the above .. I am also an In charge which has now been changed to Team leader as we now have RN s . I get $1 dollar a hour more than everybody else . I take all the stress and still have to do the duties with the RN . I’m 61 and I can still run rings around the young ones but my body is feeling it . I have nothing in my super to retire …

  7. Elizabeth February 14, 2017 at 12:39 am #

    I think they need to come and work with us and see how underpaid we are, caring for people who have incontinence and living with dementia, often hitting, punching and spitting. You go home with bruises and bad backs because you have to shower up to eight residents, most of them immobile. You’re paid $21 an hour payed fortnightly and you can only work the shifts you’re given so sometime you have plenty of work, and other times you don’t have enough to pay the rent. You can’t complain because they only offer small hour contracts so they can do what they want. Someone needs to help us.

  8. Marlene February 14, 2017 at 8:02 am #

    in our work place the contract cleaners get paid more then Aged care workers and they don’t clean anything with body fluids on it. care staff get to mob floors daily, clean residents rooms if personal items are on tables etc, i get $21 per hour, when responsible for assisting with medications it $23. We are on our feet for an entire shift, in a eight hour shift we get one 10 minute paid tea break and a 30 minute unpaid meal break.
    we have the added pressure of deciding if a resident needs a Doctors appointment or needs to be transferred to hospital. we have six care staff on shift with one RN for a 63 bed facility mornings with only I rated as low care resident, evenings five staff including RN. nights two care staff trying to increase that to three when staff is available.

    We are expected to put up with physical aggression directed towards us and other residents, a distinct lack of manners from a number of residents, and being made to feel as if we are servants rather than what we are which is providing the care needed for the recipient to maintain a level of independence and safety, We provide the care that they need to maintain their independence, we do not intend or try to stop anyone from doing all they are physically and mentally able to do. This helps to extend life and give them a quality of life that would be missing if they had to do all the house keeping/work needed to maintain their lives.

  9. Terri February 15, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

    Just a little excerpt out of the Charter of Care Recipients Rights and Responsibilities:

    “to live without discrimination or victimisation, and without being obliged to feel grateful to those providing his or her care and accommodation;

    to personal privacy;

    to live in a safe, secure and homelike environment, and to move freely both within and outside the residential care service without undue restriction;”

    Aged care is a poorly paid industry as a whole, but this does not mean that our customers deserve any less as a result of our wages.

    If you would like to see an improvement to wages in the industry, how about looking at the amount of funding received by way of ACFI for managing the complex care needs of our clients.

    ACFI funds wages as well as certain items required under specified care and services.

    Further, a recent article quoted that “Hotel services have increased cumulatively by 46 per cent since 2007 as compared to CPI (22.6 per cent) and COPO/COPE (19.8 per cent). Utility costs have increased by 97 per cent since 2007 and administration costs by 74 per cent. The fundamental issue is: how are the providers expected to make up this difference in such a regulated revenue regime”

    I think that many (including direct care staff) have no idea of how the financial situation in aged care is so controlled by Government.

    There are no buckets of money!

  10. Muriel Masters February 15, 2017 at 9:23 pm #

    I am the one who cleans and redresses your parent after they vomit. I am the one that often has to remove their dentures and clean them then help them reinsert them. I am the one that sits with your parent to assist them during mealtimes and with drinks. I am the one who cleans them, and frequently redresses them when they have been incontinent. I am the one who showers and assists them to dress daily and in the evening assist them to change clothes and put them to bed.

    I am often the one who takes whom clothing to be repaired as family do not visit. I am also the one that often will do personal shopping in my own time for clothing items and other personal items that family ‘conveniently’ forget, never intend to buy or there is no family.

    I am the one that listens to your parents concerns, worries & fears and I am the one that listens to them voicing concerns over there immediate families health concerns or family dynamics.

    I am the one who listens and consoles your parents when they weep from loss, grief or fear.

    Yet I am the one, who is often verbally abused, at times physically abused or injured in some way when providing this care. And more frequently now, the abuse is from family members.

    Why do you think it is acceptable to be verbally abuse me on behalf of your parent in a manner that you would not tolerate nor find acceptable if your child was bullied and abused in this manner at their place of employment?

    I am a carer and my role is as important and as valuable as any other role entrusted with the care of a family member – be it child or adult. Yet my wages do not reflect this.

    I, like the majority of parents would have liked to have been able to offer my own children every opportunity available to them. Unfortunately being a single parent on a very low wage and also having worked in this industry for many man years, due to my age, this is now impossible.

    Aged care workers deserve a wage that is reflective of the valuable necessary work they perform.

    I have grave concerns & fears for the future of this industry in Australia.

    With Government cutbacks and changes in community as well as residential and providers now ‘focusing on alternative means of attracting business’ I imagine we will be seeing more frequent stories in the media of elder abuse in aged care, unsafe multi tasking practices, fewer RN’s on site etc, whilst existing staff will be given more & more daily tasks to fill the gaps of delivery.

    I have been advocating for resident ratio and wage increases for over 30 yrs now.

    I see this as the future for aged care in Australia – an industry that will implode as it cannot cope with the current situation and will be unable to cope with the expected future generation of those in residential facilities and their demands ‘ as retaining staff will be one of the major issues.

    That old saying ‘pay peanuts and you will get …………..’

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