Australia’s aged care crisis is worse than feared with the sector facing a shortfall of around 35,000 direct care workers this year alone, according to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.
CEDA’s latest report – Duty of care: Aged care sector in crisis – finds that the staff shortage has doubled in less than a year, rising from 17,000 to 35,000, with the latest evidence suggesting the sector is tracking towards CEDA’s “worst-case scenarios”. This is due to a double whammy of events: the COVID pandemic and government inaction, say the report’s authors.
“If workforce shortages at this level continue, we will not have enough workers to meet the basic standards of care recommended by the royal commission,” said CEDA senior economist Cassandra Winzar.
Border closures due to COVID, and low pay and poor conditions have exacerbated the decline in staff numbers, said Ms Winzar. “The aged care workforce was already under significant pressure with staff shortages, low pay, poor working conditions and increased negative attention through the royal commission,” she said. “Over the past year, COVID-19 has amplified these pressures.”
With aged care homes particularly susceptible to COVID outbreaks, working conditions became even more difficult for staff, write the report’s authors. “For a workforce that was already burnt-out prior to COVID-19, this has been the breaking point.”
Among recommendations to stem the staff exodus, the report’s authors suggest:
- unions, employers and the Federal Government should collaborate to substantially increase award wages in the sector
- recruit personal care workers directly by adding them to the temporary or permanent skilled-migration lists, or introduce a new essential skills visa
- industry and governments should develop low-cost retraining options for those returning to the industry to boost skills and attract workers.
Aged care policy priorities ‘difficult to accomplish’
While the Albanese Government has made commitments towards mandating registered nurses on-site 24/7 in aged care homes while also pledging to increase care time and fully fund any wage increase decided by the Fair Work Commission, such commitments will be difficult to accomplish without a turnaround in staff numbers, said Ms Winzar.
“Importantly, meeting the goal of an extra 35,000 workers will only get Australian aged care to basic levels of care,” she said. “Filling this shortfall will not be achieved without determined and consistent effort – which must start now.”
The new report updates CEDA’s workforce projections released in August 2021, which had forecast a cumulative staff shortfall of 110,000 workers by 2030. If the situation is not urgently rectified, that figure “will look like a significant underestimate of the workforce shortages facing the sector,” write the report’s authors.
According to the report, the sector currently needs 8,000 additional workers to meet international best practice standards.
In response to CEDA’s findings, interim CEO of provider peak body the Australian & Community Providers Association Paul Sadler said the staff shortage could actually be even worse.
“CEDA says an additional 8,000 workers are needed; we believe it could be close to 20,000,” Mr Sadler said. The new Federal Government will have difficulty achieving its aged care policy priorities “without immediate action,” he added.
However, the situation is not all doom and gloom, write the report’s authors. If the workforce can be rebuilt, wages lifted and conditions improved, the sector could encourage more and more people to the industry.
“By pulling all the available levers we can start to make progress on building the caring workforce that Australia needs to provide the high level of care we all expect for ourselves and our families,” they said.