ACTU, unions launch plan to tackle broken aged-care system

Aged care workers are so overworked that cannot often even pause to have a chat. Photo: Pixabay

Unions representing aged-care workers and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) launched their plan to tackle the “broken” system and protect workers at the front line of the pandemic on September 21.

At least 633 COVID-19 deaths have been linked to aged care homes — three-quarters of the nation’s virus toll. At least 4200 residents and staff have been infected.

The Health Services Union (HSU), Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) and the United Workers Union (UWU) said workers carrying out “invaluable work in incredibly difficult conditions” have been let down by the federal government.

The unions argue that secure jobs for workers in aged care means leads to quality care. It has called for the following “essential” changes: mandated minimum staffing levels and the required mix of skills and qualifications in every residential facility over every shift; transparency and accountability for government funding; mandated training (including infection control and professional development) for all staff, paid by employer; and a rise in government funding with the direct employment of permanent staff with decent pay and hours.

Registered nurse Irene McInerney said the current system led to “exhausted staff and tired bodies”. She said greater staff numbers were essential to be able to do the job safely.

Personal-care worker and UWU member Jay Alia asked: “Where is all the money going?”

Meal provider and HSU member Lindy Twyford said: “How many hundreds of our residents have to die before something is done? The whole system is failing. We need action now.”

ANMF federal secretary Annie Butler said that the aged care royal commission has already exposed how the system suffers from “chronic and widespread understaffing”.

This has created “unsafe environments for both workers and those they care for … The pandemic has now revealed just how dangerous understaffing is, with tragic consequences for far too many older people and their families.”

Mandating minimum staffing levels must be an “urgent priority”, she said. “If that doesn’t happen, safe, quality care cannot be guaranteed.”

HSU president Gerard Hayes said that for too long the aged-care system has “relied on the goodwill of a highly casualised and underpaid female-dominated workforce, who often retire into poverty”.

“A properly and transparently funded aged-care sector will lead to better pay and conditions for all aged-care workers,” he said.

UWU aged-care director Carolyn Smith said our members tell us every day that they are “forced to make the choice between completing their tasks or to properly looking after those they care for. They tell us the system is so broken, and so understaffed, their timetables don’t allow them the simple humanity of pausing to have a chat with people as they prepare their shower.

“The pressure on aged-care staff leaves our members demoralised and burnt out. It helps explain why Australia has one of the world’s worst staff retention rates in aged care.” She said increased, accountable funding is needed for better staff ratios and a funding boost.

ACTU president Michele O’Neil said: “Minimum staffing levels and a regulated mix of skills on every shift in every facility is essential. We need to ensure that one job is enough … Aged care workers having to work between multiple facilities has been a huge problem during the pandemic and must end. Privatisation is a failed experiment in aged care.”

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