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Danger strikes: Covid and industrial action put aged care on the edge

Stressed aged care workers are threatening to abandon their vulnerable residents in Brisbane just as a massive Covid surge bears down on the sector.

Jul 14, 2022, updated Jul 14, 2022
Aged Care Minister Anika Wells gets her Covid booster in a Brisbane aged care centre. (Photo: Supplied).

Aged Care Minister Anika Wells gets her Covid booster in a Brisbane aged care centre. (Photo: Supplied).

Staff from multiple sites owned by one of Australia’s largest private aged care providers say they will be forced to leave their jobs if wages and conditions fail to improve.

They made their point yesterday with a rally outside the 110-bed Arcare complex at Parkinson, just as news broke that Covid-19 outbreaks were blooming across 160 Queensland residential aged care facilities, with the third Omicron wave threatening to surpass the January peak.

Aged Care Minister Anika Wells, who told ABC Radio on Thursday she was worried about easing restrictions in aged care homes due to the growing Covid threat, will meet with nurses and senior delegates of the Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union (QNMU) for ’roundtable’ talks in Brisbane.

The newly-minted Queensland-based federal minister has two potentially deadly fronts exerting pressure – industrial action disrupting an already distressed sector and incomplete vaccination coverage that is leaving residents and staff exposed to a dangerous virus on the loose.

Both scenarios either on their own or combined will devastate the sector, prompting Wells to call for a “unified approach” on aged care that she wants brought back to the national cabinet as a matter of priority.

Her position comes after Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk asked Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to call a national cabinet meeting so state leaders can be briefed by the chief health officer about the deteriorating Covid-19 crisis.

Health Minister Mark Butler has warned “millions” of people could be infected with the virus in coming weeks as it spreads in winter.

Paul Sadler, the interim CEO of the Aged and Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA) told the ABC that the last two weeks of July and all of August were expected to be “high-risk periods for aged care”.

As of yesterday (July 13), 18,010, or 67.9 per cent, of Queensland’s aged care residents had received a fourth Covid booster.

Wells told InQueensland that she had asked the Department of Health and Aged Care to contact providers to “urge and assist” them to book vaccine winter doses for their residents.

While the minister looks to build vaccination momentum, a fractured sector could break her stride, as a stressed workforce fall behind on pay and conditions and suffer low morale as voiced in Brisbane yesterday.

QNMU acting secretary Kate Veach said staff were at breaking point after Arcare management’s “unfair proposed pay offer and continued attempts to stall negotiations”.

“Nursing and care staff at Arcare have and continue to work incredibly hard to meet the needs of elderly residents during Covid-19 and every day,” Veach said.

“These wages and conditions are unacceptable and will force experienced and caring staff to leave these nursing homes and their residents. Arcare nurses and staff deserve better – including a wage rise that meets the rising cost of living.”

Workers employed by the company at Logan Reserve, Slacks Creek, Springwood, Eight Mile Plains and Seven Hills walked off the job yesterday, incensed the company has offered a 2.5 per cent wage rise, well under Brisbane’s six per cent cost-of-living rise that was calculated by the National Consumer Price Index (CPI) in March this year.

Staff overwhelmingly rejected the offer in a recent vote, already fed-up that private aged care nurses earn up to 48 per cent less than their Queensland Health colleagues.

The QNMU has recently endorsed the ‘in-principle’ offer from Queensland Health to increase wages four per cent for the first year of the new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA), with a further four per cent for the second year and three per cent for the third year.

There is also an additional commitment from the state government to lift the amounts if inflation is running higher than the wage increase at the end of each year.

In contrast, staff at Arcare are furious with the lack of momentum on negotiations from their ‘for profit’ private aged care provider, where rooms at its Parkinson complex, for example, are advertised as “luxurious suites” with deposits that range between $430,000 and $550,000.

Daily care fees are paid to Arcare atop these deposits – as well as millions in federal taxpayer funds.

In 2019, a Tax Justice Network – Australia and Centre for International Corporate Tax Accountability & Research (CICTAR) Report stated Arcare was “the largest family-owned aged care company, is controlled by the Knowles family, another of Australia’s wealthiest families, through layers of trusts.”

The report stated Arcare received “nearly $160 million in government funding for the 2016- 17 year.

“However, as a private for-profit family business, no other public information on the company is available, but the allocation of federal funding has continued,” Veach said.

Arcare’s Queensland operations manager Karen Carey said her company was trying to address “broader industry-wide challenges”, but remained hamstrung in their capacity to offer more pay until they received more government funding.

“Both political parties came out during the recent election campaign and stated they would provide the additional funding to enable fair wage increases,” Carey said.

“Arcare has strongly supported and advocated for more government funding to go directly to additional wage increases on top of what Arcare has offered employees in the new EBA.

“We are hopeful that the Labor party will provide extra funding as promised.”

A spokesperson for Wells said one of the minister’s first acts after being sworn in was to write to the Fair Work Commission seeking leave to make a submission on behalf of the government to the Aged Care Work Value case.

“That submission is due on August 8. The government has committed to funding the outcome of that case,” they said.

An Arcare staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, said via a statement prepared by the QNMU that:

“Staff morale is at an all-time low. Most of these facilities are short staffed and nurses and carers are forced to take on massive workloads. There are poor processes in place for managing handover, putting registered nurses and residents at risk.

“Staff have been trying to raise our genuine concerns about the health and wellbeing of residents for over a year now through our enterprise bargaining negotiations.

“But instead of working with us to fix these staffing and rostering issues, management have dismissed our concerns, stalled negotiations, and then tabled an insultingly low pay offer. We ask that management rethink their approach and start treating staff with some respect.”

 

 

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