Penalty rates not safe in aged care

Who says nurses are immune from penalty rate cuts?

Estia Health tried to reduce Sunday rates early on during talks for a new enterprise agreement (EA).

Finalised last month, the EA replaces separate agreements covering a number of businesses taken over by Estia.

Estia has grown rapidly by taking over other operators including Kennedy Health Care (2016), Hutchinson Health Care (2015) and Cook Care (2014).

It now has 68 facilities and more than 7000 employees in four states.

Once characterised by smaller, family-owned operators, the aged care sector is increasingly dominated by big corporate players who aim to grow even bigger.

Corporate investors are attracted to the sector by predictions that Australia will need a minimum 69,000 extra places by 2022.

At present, there are more than 2700 aged care facilities in Australia with nearly 170,000 beds.

A competitive sector

Six companies – Regis, Japara, Estia, Opal, Bupa and Allity – control around one third of facilities and each is striving to increase profits.

In Estia’s case it sought to cut Sunday rates from 75 per cent to 60 per cent. That would have cost nurses up to $41.55 for an eight-hour Sunday shift.

Estia claimed it would make up for the loss by raising Saturday rates from 50 per cent to 60 per cent.

But as NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes pointed out: “Aged care workers do not have a choice in what days they are rostered to work, so if you’re working on a Sunday and not a Saturday, as many people do, you lose out significantly.”

“For a registered nurse working most Sundays it’s a loss of around $2000 a year and $1200 for an assistant in nursing (AiN).”

After Estia members used social media to tell the company the importance of penalty rates to their living standards, the company responded and withdrew the cuts.

“I can’t afford cuts to my penalty rates,” said Sarah Jones, NSWNMA branch president and delegate at Estia’s Merrylands facility in western Sydney.

“Every part of my wage is allocated to things like rent, electricity and food, down to the dollar.

“If penalty rates had been cut I would have to find the money from somewhere else – extra shifts or a second job.”

Sticking together pays off

She said nurses decided to set up a union branch at the start of EA negotiations.

“We were fortunate to have the backing of the Association, which did a great job for us and gave us a bigger voice so we were able to reverse the cut to penalty rates and other negative changes.”

Estia nurses also won an average 3.28 per cent pay increase back paid to 1 July, 2016.

This will be followed by a 2.4 per cent pay increase in July 2017, 2018 and 2019.

While most Estia nurses were receiving four weeks’ leave (five for shift workers) some – such as former Kennedy staff and Albury Estia nurses – had five and six weeks.

In the new EA some Estia nurses will get bigger increases that include a “buy out” of one week’s annual leave.

Estia Albury nurses, for example, will get total pay rises of between 25.96 per cent and 41.83 per cent during the life of the agreement.