Urgent action is needed to address a looming shortage of at least 110,000 aged care workers over the coming decade, including boosting pay and conditions and creating a new dedicated migration path to boost the labour force.
The stark warning is contained in a new report to be released by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Ceda) on Tuesday. The report says unless the Morrison government takes action now, Australia’s aged care workforce shortage will balloon to more than 400,000 workers by 2050.
The report finds Australia has failed to prepare for “the human challenge at the centre of aged care” by building a workforce that is both big enough and well-equipped to meet community expectations.
It says demand for services has “soared” while supply has remained constrained and “there has been no comprehensive action to bring the two into balance”. It says low wages, poor training and the lack of career progression “combined with negative public perceptions of the industry” are constraining the supply of workers.
The report argues the recent royal commission into aged care was a critically important milestone. But it says it will “further add to demand with the need for more care at a higher quality”.
It says Australia will need at least 17,000 more direct aged-care workers each year over the next decade “just to meet basic standards of care”. The problem is so pressing, the Morrison government will need to pull “all available levers” including increasing funding for the sector to meet the workforce challenge.
The report says the sector will need to offer better wages and conditions “in line with comparable sectors”, ongoing staff development and investments in technology reducing the physical burdens on professional carers, to give them more opportunity for higher standard “face-to-face care”.
It recommends unions, major employers and the Morrison government “collaborate to increase award wages in the sector – as recommended by the royal commission,” as well as creating structures for progression.
On the migration front, the report says the government should permanently increase the number of hours international students are allowed to work in the aged-care sector, and permanently add aged care to the specified work requirements to extend working holiday visas, while allowing those working in aged care to remain with one employer beyond six months.
It says the government should also consider a new essential skills visa allowing the recruitment of personal care workers.
The Morrison government in this year’s budget unveiled a $17.7bn aged care package which was its response to the damning findings of the aged care royal commission. The government adopted much of the commission’s reform roadmap, but it “noted” a clear recommendation that low wages in the sector be increased, rather than supporting it.
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The government has also faced sustained political pressure during the coronavirus pandemic about whether the aged care sector – which is funded and regulated by the commonwealth – was properly prepared for the public health emergency. More than 600 people died in aged care facilities during the second wave of the pandemic.
In question time on Monday, Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland noted “less than half” of the aged care workforce were fully vaccinated, “and aged care facilities across Sydney are in lockdown”.
The government’s vaccination of aged care workers has been plagued by delays, failures and confusion, despite the workforce being included in the highest priority phase of the rollout. In a bid to boost vaccination rates, Morrison announced in June that workers would be required to have a first dose by mid-September or face exclusion from the sector.
With the mid-September deadline looming, the health minister Greg Hunt told parliament on Monday 56% of the workforce had been given a first dose.
But the prime minister acknowledged later on Monday public health orders to mandate those vaccinations were not yet in place. “Now, at this point, there is, there are no states or territories that have put in place public health orders on this matter, that has mandated that requirement, and that is a matter for them,” the prime minister said.
“But, what we are doing is working with the providers, ensuring that there will be a transparency, not just at a state level, but at a facility level to ensure that residents and their families understand what is occurring at those facilities and the levels of vaccination”, Morrison said.