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Inquiry hears from unions, provider peak about worker issues


From left: Lisa Alcock and Darren Mathewson

Aged care workers raise concerns daily about physical violence, low pay, staff shortages and challenges with securing permanent work, the royal commission hears.

On Wednesday, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety heard evidence from representatives of industry peak bodies and unions about the feedback and concerns they receive from their members working in the aged care sector.

The panel members included Health Workers Union industrial officer Lisa Alcock, who said common feedback related to violence and pay.

“The two most critical pieces of feedback that we receive from members on a daily basis is the alarming rate of occupational violence and that is just something you have to accept when you work in aged care,” Ms Alcock told the hearing.

“The second is that the incredibly low rate of pay is something that you have to similarly accept and… it’s hard to accept because I feel that you can’t have a high quality of care if you have workers working poor and working them into poverty, essentially,” she said.

A shortage of staff, insufficient pay, inadequate training, unmanageable workloads and concerns about job security were among other top concerns discussed by the panel.

Staff pay disappointing

The minimum rates for full-time aged care workers range from $20 to $25 an hour under the national Aged Care Award.

Under the award, the pay rate is fixed for a period of four years and is then to be reviewed, however this has recently been repealed from the Fair Work Act. The current review of the award commenced in 2014, is still ongoing, the inquiry heard.

Paul Gilbert

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation assistant secretary Paul Gilbert said staff at some aged care facilities might be worse off than this minimum.

“We have some workplaces that are on enterprise agreements that have passed their expiry dates that have rates that are lower than that,” Mr Gilbert said.

“We don’t have any evidence to say whether the employer is paying that rate or that rate, but we know that the modern award rate is displaced because of… extant enterprise agreements,” he said.

Personal care staff compare their pay and worth to a supermarket checkout operator, Mr Gilbert said.

“The comment I hear when I go have meetings is ‘I could get paid more, working on the checkout at Aldi’ and it’s technically true,” he said.

“That’s interestingly what they tend to compare themselves to because they see those jobs advertised with an hourly rate of $24, $25 and $26,” Mr Gilbert said.

Mr Gilbert said dedicated care workers question why their job is seen as less worthy than someone who works at a supermarket.

Ms Alcock said a care worker told her she who had to pay $150 an hour for someone to clean the gutters, but only got paid $21 an hour to clean a person and provide them care and support.

“That’s not fair,” Ms Alcock said.

More than two-thirds of members (70 per cent) reported some amount of unpaid work, she said.

“There’s so much work that’s not being paid and they’re being paid only $21 an hour,” Ms Alcock said.

Aged and Community Services Australia executive director of services, support and engagement Darren Mathewson agreed that aged care workers needed a payrise.

“Our members are consistently disappointed with the rates of pay,” Mr Mathewson told the inquiry.

“They were pleased when the Aged Care Workforce Strategy report came out and strategic action 13 indicated that there was a need to lift remuneration in the sector by at least 15 per cent across the board,” Mr Mathewson said.

He said this indicated a structural need to adjust remuneration rates and that the industry “has historically been viewed as an extension of care work previously delivered informally in the past, and there is a need to look at it relative to other industries and lift the value.”

Staff unable to find permanent work

Elsewhere, United Voice industrial officer Clare Tunney told the hearing they were concerned about part-time workers who were underemployed or whose contracts didn’t reflect their true hours, including some on zero or minimal hour contracts.

Clare Tunney

“On average I think our members work anywhere between 10 and 30 hours a week. So somewhere around the 20 hour a week mark for part-time carers, I think would be the average,” Ms Tunney said.

Similarly, Ms Alcock said it was common for providers to offer 10-hour contracts but the staff were working 30 hours a week.

This model provides maximum flexibility for the organisation in how they roster staff without consulting workers, Ms Alcock said.

“The majority of people” don’t know about their rights to be able to convert their employment and when they do know about it, “it’s hard” for them to do it, she said.

Casual workers have to prove they have been working for six months and not covering staff on sick or annual leave or WorkCover. They have to put in a request to their employer and if it is denied, they have to go to the Fair Work Commission, Ms Alcock said.

Mr Mathewson said providers preferred permanent employment too.

“I think on behalf of our members we could say that the constant and consistent message we get is that permanent work is the absolutely preferred mode of employment,” he said.

“Staff is your most important resource in delivering quality care, but permanent staff are those that will have the ability to provide continuity of care and that higher level of quality,” Mr Mathewson said.

This royal commission’s hearings on workforce concludes on Friday.

The next hearing takes place 4-6 November in Mudgee, New South Wales, and will focus on aged care provision in regional areas.

A hearing in Hobart follows 11-15 November and will focus on the aged care operations of selected providers.

Read also from this week’s hearing

Inquiry moves its focus to workforce issues

Pollaers calls out government over lack of action on workforce

Royal Commission loses passionate champion for reform

International students, Pacific Islanders plug aged care workforce gap

To stay up to date on the latest about the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety go to our special coverage. 

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