Australia’s aged care nurses are the lowest paid nurses in the country, but the work they do is critical to the care, comfort and quality of life of vulnerable, elderly, chronically and terminally ill people living in residential aged care facilities.
Last April aged care nurses, personal care workers, residents and their families welcomed the Gillard Government major aged care Living Longer Living Better reforms announcement. The plan was a sign the government had listened to people’s concerns and would bypass rhetoric and actually improve residents’ nursing and personal care.
A key part of the package was $1.2 billion over four years to boost the wages of around 300,000 residential and community aged care workers, including nurses and personal care staff.
The significant funding was a welcome start to address the fact that aged care nurses earn $168 less per week than nurses employed in public hospitals. Boosting low wages would help address the shortage of more than 20,000 nurses needed to work in aged care and care for our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers and aunts and uncles – our loved ones.
Previous federal governments have provided additional money to improve nurses’ wages, but it never made it to their pay packet. This time it was to be different. Federal Minister for Ageing Mark Butler announced each employer had to sign up to a Workforce Compact – an agreement setting out checks and balances to ensure the additional funding went to the intended recipients, the nurses and personal care workers who are the backbone of the residential and community aged care.
However, seven months since the Gillard Government announcement, there is no agreement around the Workforce Compact that will ensure that all of the money makes it to the pockets of those dedicated aged care workers.
Even worse, uncertainty around the Workforce Compact has meant enterprise agreements which expired at the beginning of the year have not been progressed and normal pay rises under these are now eight or more months overdue.
What’s holding the process up? The employers will not reach agreement with aged care unions, including the ANF, on how to guarantee the money actually reaches nurses and carers. We must learn from history and ensure there are robust checks and balances attached to this funding. In order for employers to access the additional funding the Workforce Compact must include:
• An enterprise agreement. This will provide transparency and ensure the additional funding is received by the dedicated nurses and personal care workers for whom it is intended. This was the Gillard Government’s and Minister Butler’s promise.
• Fair and reasonable employer funded salary increases. The extra money was intended to be on top of the annual wage increases employers would have been expected to offer - not instead of these.
• Employers should not be allowed to deduct on costs from Workforce Compact salary increases. This will ensure nurses and personal care workers receive their fair share of the funding and it is not whittled away by employers.
• Compact money not taken up by employers should remain in the pool to improve wages and conditions of aged care workers, and not be returned to Treasury coffers.
The negotiations have been overseen by Fair Work Australia Commissioner Gooley who has now filed a report on the Workforce Compact with Minister Butler. The future of aged care, and its clinical and personal care workforce, now rests with Minister Butler who is expected to make a decision on all outstanding matters this month.
The Gillard Government is at a significant crossroads for the future of aged care policy.
A real wage increase for nurses and carers will show we value and respect this important work, help reverse the nurse shortage and help attract and retain qualified and experienced staff to care for residents.
If the Workplace Compact fails to direct the extra money to nurses’ and carers’ wages, then we will still have a nurse shortage and the level of resident care will not improve. Nothing will change and it will still cost taxpayers $1.2 billion.
What can you do?
Please sign the ANF (Vic Branch) petition calling on Minister Butler to urgently finalise a Workforce Compact, which includes adequate checks, balances and transparency and ties the additional $1.2 billion to enterprise agreements. This is the only way to ensure the additional funding goes to the pockets of the people who provide nursing and personal care to elderly Australians and is not absorbed by employers into consolidated revenue.
In April, I applauded you and the Gillard Government when you announced $1.2 billion to increase aged care nurses’ and personal care workers’ wages. But I understand that employers are trying to derail this achievement. Please don’t let them.
Seven months on, I’m disappointed that we have no agreed Workforce Compact, with employers unwilling to accept fair checks and balances.
Compounding my disappointment is the fact that, since you announced extra money to boost wages, enterprise bargaining negotiations for nurses and personal care workers in Victoria have stalled. This means nurses whose agreements expired at the beginning of this year are now eight or more months overdue their next ordinary pay rise, let alone something additional that boosts their wages.
A federal government allocating extra money to improve aged care nurses’ wages is not new. But your announcement was different. You said it would be paid through a Workforce Compact - an agreement to ensure aged care workers would receive competitive wages. Your policy meant $1.2 billion would actually go to nurses and carers and wouldn’t be absorbed into the aged care system like previous Howard Government announcements.
Over the next few days, as you consider the outstanding Workforce Compact issues, I urge you to ensure it includes the following protections in order for employers to access additional funding:
1. A current enterprise agreement must be in place.
2. All enterprise agreements must contain reasonable employer-funded annual wage increases.
3. The lowest paying employers should at least have to meet the modest levels of pay above the modern awards.
4. On costs must not be deducted from the approximately one per cent salary increases under the Workforce Compact.
5. An entitlement to paid professional development or conference leave and workplace representative rights must be part of the final Compact.
Further, I request that:
• Money not taken up by employers each year should be reallocated the following year to participating facilities to further improve the wages and conditions of aged care workers.
• The ANF and other aged care unions sign off that employers have met the Compact’s requirements.
The Gillard Government can address the shortage of nursing staff in aged care by valuing their work and closing the wages gap, so residents can be assured of quality care.
History shows we can’t increase the wages of Australia’s lowest paid nurses unless the Federal Government guarantees extra funding makes it into their pay packet. Australian taxpayers rightly require transparency, rigor and accountability when a Federal Government spends $1.2 billion. We don’t want to see this money wasted or redirected by employers as has occurred in the past.
Aged care nurses and carers had faith in your historic announcement to boost wages. Please tell the employer representatives that you expect them to lift the industry to higher standards, not pander to its lowest levels.