In one of its earliest actions the Abbott Government has blocked modest pay increases for more than 200,000 aged care workers.
Aged care workers are having promised pay rises cancelled after the Abbott Government said it would tear up Labor’s workforce compact guaranteeing higher wages in the sector.
On September 26, the government suspended new applications from aged-care operators seeking to sign up to the Aged Care Workforce Supplement.
The ACTU says the Abbott Government had broken its commitment that no worker will be worse off under the Coalition.
Under Labor, the $1.2 billion Workforce Supplement was allocated to pay wage rises of one per cent, backdated to July 1, over and above any other increases negotiated with employers.
This recognised the need to make aged care jobs more attractive in view of current and projected workforce shortages.
The new government has vowed to return the $1.2 billion to the general aged care funding pool while it “develops alternative policy options”.
Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, claimed many employers could not afford to cover all costs associated with the Workforce Supplement.
Mr Andrews also complained that “the funding was conditional upon the signing of a union-dictated EBA.” The former government required employers with more than 50 employees to sign up to enterprise bargaining agreements, negotiated with their employees, in order to access the supplementary payments.
This was done to ensure that public money allocated to boost wages was paid to employees in a transparent and verifiable fashion.
Mr Andrews said aged-care facilities already approved for the supplement would continue to receive it and the Department of Social Services would continue to process applications lodged before September 26.
“The government will consider transitional arrangements for these providers as it develops alternative policy options,” he said.
In New South Wales, at least two employers – Calvary Retirement Communities and Warrigal Care – had no recourse but to withdraw offers to pay the 1% supplementary increase following the government’s announcement. Employers already paying the supplement in NSW include major operators Domain Principal Group and Uniting Care.
At least 4000 aged care workers in Victoria were early casualties of the change of policy, with two major employers withdrawing pay offers based on funds from the previous government’s Commonwealth Aged Care Supplement, the ACTU reported.
“These aged care workers are seeing an immediate cut to their future earnings with the change of government,” ACTU President Ged Kearney said.
NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes said low pay was a major contributor to the chronic shortage of nurses in the aged care sector.
“Putting the Workforce Supplement into enterprise agreements guaranteed that government funding flowed straight into workers’ pockets, thereby helping the sector retain and attract staff,” Brett said.
The office of outgoing Labor Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Jacinta Collins, also voiced her disapointment.
“The tragic reality is that the Coalition will rip these pay increases out of the pockets of hard-working nurses and aged care workers at a time when we need to help the aged-care workforce almost triple in size to meet the demands of the ageing population,” a spokeswoman for Senator Collins said.
Seniors groups have called on the federal government to act quickly to improve wages and working conditions in aged care.
Council on the Ageing chief executive, Ian Yates, said strategies to support increased wages, to help retain and expand the aged care workforce, must be developed as a priority given that the government plans to move away from the Workforce Supplement.
“Good quality, well-paid staff are essential to good quality of care,” he said.
National Seniors Australia chief executive, Michael O’Neill, welcomed plans to streamline “over-the-top” paperwork, but said wages and conditions for aged care workers had to be improved and it was not clear how the government would achieve this.
The Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association (CPSA) said the Abbott Government’s proposals to relax aged care regulation demonstrated a poor understanding of the problems of abuse, neglect and premature death in Australian nursing homes.
The CPSA’s senior policy advisor, Charmaine Crowe, described the policy reversal as “a win for the nursing home industry and a slap in the face for older Australians”.
The CPSA also called on the government to mandate staff-to-resident ratios in nursing homes to prevent understaffing.
“Ratios exist in hospitals and childcare, but not in nursing homes,” it pointed out.
Rosie Smith, NSWNMA branch secretary and endorsed enrolled nurse at Calvary Retirement Community in Cessnock, said she was “extremely disappointed but not surprised” by the government’s action.
“It is the sort of thing you expect from a Liberal government,” she said. “I think most of us knew that if the Liberals got in we would not be getting the 1% Workforce Supplement.
“I would like to know what is going to happen to the funding that the former government allocated as a wage increase.
“The Liberals will say they are working on a different funding model for aged care, but how long will it take them to sort it out? Will there be any benefit for workers in the sector?”
Rosie Smith said Labor’s Workforce Supplement amounted to recognition by the Australian government of the importance of the work done by aged care employees.
“Labor acknowledged that the work we do is worth more. The Liberals have shown their disrespect towards us by taking away the supplementary increase. They have devalued aged care as a profession.”
She said Minister Andrews’ criticism of “union-dictated” enterprise bargaining agreements was ridiculous.
“When we negotiate our EBA with union support we are only after a fair and equitable outcome.
“Nobody is dictating anything – if we dictated agreements to the employer we’d be millionaires.”
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