The challenges of a highly casualised and insecure aged care workforce have been emphasised during the COVID-19 pandemic, an inquiry into job security has heard this week.

The Senate Select Committee on Job Security held a public hearing on 19 April into the insecure working arrangements in aged care and its impact on the spread of COVID-19 in aged care facilities.

The inquiry heard that several aged care providers operate a model with many part-time and casual employees, which often leaves people with insecure work and multiple jobs.

It also contributed to the transmission of COVID-19 to aged care homes, the inquiry heard.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary Annie Butler said staffing shortfalls were particularly evident during COVID-19.

“We see that workers have to have multiple jobs because they cannot get the hours of work at one facility or even two facilities. We found in the pandemic that sometimes some of our members had up to four jobs to try and get enough income to survive. We all know what the effects of that were,” Ms Butler told the inquiry.

It makes it “extremely difficult” for aged care staff to provide adequate care in short contract hours, she said.

Annie Butler

“It is just not possible to deliver all the care that is required for particularly residents in nursing homes… in the time that they have available,” Ms Butler said.

“Our members are willing to work more. We know that they want to work more.”

She said more than half of members surveyed last year during the COVID pandemic reported they would work more hours if offered.

Victorian enrolled nurse Paul Bott also gave evidence at the inquiry. He has been working with a nursing agency since a recent redundancy from a part-time role at a non-government aged care after eight years.

“I’ve been trying to pick up shifts where I can and within the first week of being employed with this nursing agency, I only had two shifts for that week and for me, that’s not enough… I’m renting with my wife and three kids. So trying to live on two shifts a week… doesn’t quite cut it,” Mr Bott told the inquiry.

He said staffing shortfalls and missed care became more prevalent during the second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria.

“During the second wave people could only work at the one site and … there were significantly less hours than what [staff] were used to. And because of that, we didn’t have enough staff at the facility because they decided to work at their main facility that they worked at,” he said.

“So that other nursing home lost that staff [and] during that period… there was significantly less staff. And we were told to work longer to [keep staff at a basic level],” he said.

“Things do get missed, wounds don’t get looked out for days and it creates a snowball effect in a way with the care that’s being missed by others,” he said.

Model suits providers

ANMF assistant federal secretary Lori-Anne Sharp said a majority of the care workforce work part-time and it has become the preferred employment model for many providers because it is easy for them to flex staff hours up or down.

“We’ve got members who might be on for 16 hours per fortnight that routinely work above 32 hours and will do that for years,” Ms Sharp told the inquiry

“That’s the problem there… they use an employment model that suits them and gives all the power imbalance to them because they’re able to flex up the hours at a whim,” she said.

Jess Walsh

Low paid, insecure jobs a “disgrace”

In a doorstop interview before the inquiry, Senator for Victoria Jess Walsh said aged care workers do not have enough work to do their jobs or support themselves.

“They don’t have enough hours of work to care for the residents that they want to do a great job for. And they don’t have enough hours of work to support themselves and their families in the way that they would like to.

“It is an absolute disgrace that we are organising aged care in this country on low paid, undervalued and insecure jobs,” Ms Walsh said.

Tony Sheldon

Senator for New South Wales Tony Sheldon called on the government to address insecure work.

“What we’ve got to see is that the government needs to take seriously the plague and pandemic of insecure work that we saw in the economy before COVID and then turbocharged as a result of COVID,” Mr Sheldon said.

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