Union leaders have accused the Morrison government of ignoring advice from the aged-care royal commission after a damning new report found 110,000 direct aged-care workers are needed by 2030 to meet basic care needs.
Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes said the government was already failing to live up to promises to fix long-standing staff shortages despite the royal commission outlining it as an urgent priority.
“The lessons that have come out of the aged-care royal commission are falling on deaf ears,” he told The New Daily.
“The government has to be held to account.”
The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) warned on Tuesday that ageing Australians will experience care standards closer to those seen in emerging economies under current funding plans.
In a new report titled Duty of Care, CEDA chief economist Jarrod Ball said pay rises and better working conditions for staff were urgently needed.
He said the $17.7 billion funding package for aged care announced in the federal budget in response to the royal commission was insufficient to ensure Australians aged with dignity.
“If we don’t make some moves in the next decade, we will probably struggle to maintain OECD average [care standards],” Mr Ball told TND.
“These costs are felt in the health system. We’ll have more older people in hospitals and we’ll also have greater stress on informal carers.”
Mr Hayes said the latest funding boost is $5 billion short of what is needed over the next three years.
“We need to be preparing for the ageing population now,” he said.
“This is your parents and it is going to be you.”
Australia going backwards
By 2031, about 20 per cent of Australia’s population will be aged over 65 and at least 17,000 direct care workers must be added yearly until then, the CEDA report concluded.
That is the bare minimum to avoid shortages creating more aged-care horror stories, which the royal commission linked to a lack of workers.
But Mr Hayes and Mr Ball said the industry is currently losing workers as a result of low wages and strained working conditions.
“You do see a large number of people leaving the sector,” Mr Ball said.
“We have to replace those people and add more people.”
Without further action, Australia’s care standards will languish below three-star care levels by 2030 with fewer than 400,000 direct care staff.
As things stand, 34 per cent of older Australians already report that their care needs are not fully met, according to the Productivity Commission.
But Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said the current level of government funding would be enough to guarantee these needs are met.
Mr Colbeck accused CEDA of underestimating the number of aged-care workers projected to join the industry.
“The government agrees that the workforce will need to grow significantly over many years to reach the one million workers forecast by the Productivity Commission,” Mr Colbeck said in a statement.
“CEDA has used 2 per cent per annum to compare the current trajectory of workforce growth with the estimated requirements.
“This growth rate is an underestimate, with the estimated growth rate of total aged-care workforce in 2021 in the order of 6.5 per cent.”
In response, Mr Ball said his data was based on analysis of the direct care workforce and that his projections were tested with industry stakeholders.
Aged-care wage boost needed
To encourage more people to become carers, workers must be paid more, given better working conditions, and granted training incentives, Mr Ball said.
Award wages for personal care workers with similar skills are 25 to 30 per cent lower in aged care than in disability care, the economist explained.
“It’s just not tenable,” he said.
“The workforce gap will be near impossible to fill without higher wages.”
The HSU has lodged a case in the Fair Work Commission, which sets minimum award rates, pushing for a 25 per cent pay rise.
The FWC, however, has since called on the Morrison government to state whether it is prepared to fund a wage increase for the sector.
It comes after the royal commission also identified low pay as a key issue facing the industry.
Advice unheeded as government works on study
The royal commission concluded that the retention, attraction and training of staff would be crucial to lifting care standards as Australia ages.
But key recommendations, including advice that workers should all have Certificate III qualifications to undertake personal care, were not heeded.
Mr Ball said the government should revisit that advice and go further by offering to reimburse workers for their training expenses after they spend two years working in the sector.
CEDA also recommended the government develop new dedicated pathways for migrants to join the aged-care workforce, saying overseas care staff would be necessary to help address shortages.
When asked about the recommendations, Mr Colbeck said the National Skills Commission was preparing a report on the aged-care workforce that would examine how to deal with skill shortages through to 2050.
“The final report of this study will inform the development of the government’s care workforce strategy – a commitment made in response to the royal commission’s final report,” Mr Colbeck said.
“The government will continue to consider migration options as a means to help grow the care workforce.”