Prescription for Change

Living Longer, Living Better

Five new bills, introduced into parliament last month, signified a concerted push forward for Australia’s aged care sector. The bills, if passed, will usher in significant reform to the Aged Care Act 1997 – including $1.2 billion to help improve wages and conditions for aged care workers.

Also included in these “Living Longer Living Better” reforms were an $880 million home care package, an extra 30,000 residential aged care places, a boost to dementia care and new consumer directed care packages which allow individuals to exercise more control over their own care.

While the majority of these reforms have been broadly lauded and are expected to pass through parliament with ease (having been budgeted for a year ago May), a recent letter produced and distributed by the Department of Aged Care has sent shockwaves throughout the industry, causing some to question whether the bills will – or even should – ever see the light of day.

The letter, which began with ‘Dear aged care worker’, was sent out to nurses, care workers and other industry professionals and outlined the government’s $1.2 billion wage increase offer, proposed for 1 July.

“The initiative,” explained Minister of Aged Care, Mark Butler, “is aimed at addressing workforce pressures, with the aged care workforce needing to almost triple in size by 2050 to support Australia’s ageing population.”

“We know that most Australians who pursue a career in aged care do it for much more than the financial reward, but pay rises of that level are a big incentive to work in this growing industry,” Mr Butler said.

Included in this offer is a minimum 2.75 per cent pay rise for all aged care workers, available above minimum annual wage increases or other wage rises negotiated through bargaining agreements for workers employed by aged care providers, effectively creating a pay rise of up to 18.7 per cent over four years, according to Butler. Enrolled nurses would be eligible for a twenty-five per cent increase whilst registered nurses would receive 29.9 per cent increases.

This Workforce Supplement would be delivered through two channels: the Aged Care Workforce Compact and an Aged Care Workforce Development Plan. Providers would be required to pass the supplement on as higher wages. In order to be eligible for this Supplement, however, aged care workers must meet the conditions of the Workforce Compact, developed in consultation with providers and unions – who have been actively recruiting on the back of the Government’s plan.

Workers employed by providers which were compliant with the terms of the Compact would also be eligible for enhanced training and education as well as improved career pathways and development in addition to the wage increase.

Here, then, is where the controversy arises. Whilst most can agree that the pay rise is past due and certainly well-deserved, many feel uncomfortable with being forced to engage in workforce unions to ensure continued delivery of the Supplement – with workers and providers alike split on this issue.

Minister Mark Butler himself has publicly and unabashedly criticised his department for the controversial letter, which he said unnecessarily provoked providers and workers within aged care. In his statements, he refers to the letter as a “monumental stuff-up.” In an interview with The Australian, he said, “I have expressed my disappointment with the department for their administrative error and they have written [to aged-care providers] to apologise.”

The government argues that Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) are an effective and appropriate means of securing industry wage rises and in fact are the only way which would ensure that the agreement could be legally binding. Indeed, according to Government figures, three-quarters of providers already operate under EBAs.

However, numerous providers have been quick to position themselves against the proposal, including Catholic Health Australia (CHA) – Australia’s largest not-for-profit aged care provider. At a recent sector forum held in Geelong, the group announced findings from an internal survey of its five hundred and fifty member facilities, saying that twenty per cent had declared they would not agree to the deal. A further twenty per cent said that they were “unlikely” to agree to it.

CHA CEO Martin Laverty stated that six months ago his organisation had expressed concern to the government that “pay rises should be fully funded and that government contracts should not stipulate industrial outcomes. By not fully funding proposed pay rises and inserting industrial requirements into the Workforce Compact, some aged-care providers are now saying they will not sign on,” Mr Laverty said. “This was always likely to be the outcome.”

While the CHA does support wage increases and recognises that aged-care staff should be better paid, Mr Laverty said that the Compact as it stands simply does not look to be capable of achieving that goal. “That’s why we have called for its removal from the proposed legislation.”

However, Louise Tarrant, national secretary of aged-care union United Voice, said Catholic Health’s rejection of the plan was “outrageous. [They are] saying we won’t pass on that money, we refuse to increase the wages of people we acknowledge to be low paid,” she said. “It beggars belief.”

At that same Geelong meeting, Opposition aged care spokeswoman Concetta Fierravanti-Wells commented that operators were also distraught with what she identified as a lack of genuine consultation. “The Government has basically sat on its hands in delaying its response and, when it did finally respond to it, its response is only five or six per cent of what the productivity commission recommended,” she said. “They are basically forcing people to go into enterprise bargaining agreements and forcing them therefore to go back into the union.”

Peak industry group Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) also announced that its members were “incensed by the letter, as there were concerns that the funding was only planned until 2016 with no guarantees beyond then.”

LASA CEO Patrick Reid noted a high volume of anger within his organisation over the letter, and in a letter to members, LASA Victoria CEO John Begg advised his members to “send it back to where it came from. Whatever you choose, I can only reiterate that LASA suggests that you immediately withdraw all the material from your facility and manage your staff’s expectations as soon as possible,” Mr Begg wrote.

Some fear that the agreement would force the creation of a two-class work sector: the “haves” in facilities that could afford to pay the increased wages and the “have-nots” in workplaces that couldn’t afford the increase and so would continue to provide lower wages. Furthermore, some aged care providers are concerned that the $1.2 billion investment could lead to more focus on industrial outcomes, leaving rural facilities in particular out of the equation altogether.

Despite these rumblings, government seems assured that the majority of aged-care providers will in fact sign on to the deal. In defense of this, it must be said that a significant majority of aged-care facilities already do pay above-award wages. In response to the rising industry concerns, the government continued to insist that the deal will be a “breakthrough in improving the conditions of low-paid workers.”

Already, the package has won the backing of some operators and the big unions in the sector: United Voice, the Australian Nurses Federation and the troubled Health Services Union. As the conversation progresses, one can only hope that “Living Longer Living Better” makes it out of the operating theatre.

Stem Cells

The scientific study of stem cells has existed for a long time and has already contributed greatly to modern medicine. As scientific inquiry continues to advance and as discoveries gain more traction and acceptance in the scientific and medical communities, the true breadth and potential of this area of study can start to be realized.

October 20, 2018, 11:19 AM AEDT

Chance of Rain
Today 10/20 90%
Chance of Rain
Mostly cloudy. Periods of light rain this morning. High 16C. SSW winds at 5 to 10 km/h, increasing to 15 to 30 km/h. Chance of rain 70%.

Markets

error : cannot receive stock quote information