Fears for wellbeing of older Australians as 65,000 aged care workers leave sector each year

The shortfall of aged care workers has doubled since August and 65,000 workers are leaving the sector each year, prompting fears that basic care for older Australians is being compromised.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Ceda) released a new report on Tuesday showing a further deterioration in the country’s aged care staffing crisis since the royal commission.

The report estimates the number of direct care workers is now 30,000 to 35,000 a year short of what is needed. That is double the 17,000 annual shortfall estimated in Ceda’s last report on the aged care sector, released in August. Australia’s total aged care workforce is 360,000.

About 65,000 workers are leaving the sector each year, the report says, further highlighting an attrition problem identified in an earlier Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation survey, which found 20% of workers intended to leave in 12 months and 38% were planning to leave in the next one-to-five years.

The report identifies poor pay and conditions, the continued “trickle” of migration, and negative publicity from the royal commission as factors hastening workers’ decision to leave the sector.

For Adelaide-based aged care worker Grace Gbala, the findings come as no surprise.

Gbala works at a facility caring for about 22 residents, which frequently struggles to fill shifts and find replacements when staff cancel. When her facility is down a worker, the care for residents suffers, she says.

The abysmal pay has forced Gbala to take a second job in retail. She says it pays far better than aged care.

But Gbala’s passion for the work has kept her going.

“I’ve been working in aged care since I was 20. It either breaks you or it makes you, it’s really, really hard,” she said.

“The pay is not good. It shows that we are undervalued and that our work is not that important and that we don’t deserve better pay with all the workload that we get.

“We do deserve better pay, because we are looking after other people, we are looking after Australians who have actually contributed to this world, this society, to Australia, so they deserve the proper care.”

In the lead-up to the election, the Albanese government made a series of commitments to aged care, including increasing the quality of care, ensuring 24/7 registered nurses in residential facilities, and mandating longer care times.

“These commitments will be difficult to achieve without a turnaround in the workforce numbers,” the report says.

The report says Labor’s support for funding the work value case currently before the Fair Work Commission, where unions are seeking a 25% pay increase, is a good first step.

But it says pay alone will not solve the crisis. Ceda recommends recruiting personal care workers from abroad by adding them to the temporary or permanent skilled-migration lists, or introducing an entirely new visa, named the “essential skills” visa. It also recommended that industry and government develop low-cost retraining options for workers seeking to return to the sector.

The problem will only be compounded in the long-term by Australia’s ageing population, which will put increased pressure on beds in residential facilities and greater demand on home care packages.

But Ceda senior economist and report author Cassandra Winzar said immediate solutions were needed to deal with the acute crisis the country was facing right now.

“At the moment, if these sort of conditions continue, we won’t be able to provide fairly basic standards of care, that we’re already struggling with,” she said. “The royal commission called for increases in the quality of care, and I think that’s what everyone wants, but not only are we not even heading towards improving quality of care, we’re struggling to maintain current standards.”

United Workers Union aged care director Carolyn Smith said the data contained in the Ceda report echoed the direct experience of her members. She said there was an “underlying staff crisis” that went beyond the short-term issue of Covid.

“We visit workplaces where literally two or three of the people we speak to are saying ‘I’m leaving next week’,” she said. “We visit workplaces where the facility managers walk out of the facility, we go there and people say ‘the facility manager walked out yesterday, they couldn’t hack it any more’.”

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