The United Workers Union has launched a national campaign to get aged care providers and the federal government to fund paid COVID-19 leave for front-line aged care staff.
In light of major COVID-19 outbreaks at several aged care homes, which have seen dozens of staff forced into isolation, the ‘Keep Me Safe #FundMyLeave’ campaign wants fully paid leave for full-time and casual aged care workers who may contract the virus or need to self-isolate as a precaution.
In light of the Chief Medical Officer’s comments on Friday that Australian workers should no longer “solider on” and turn up to work if sick, paid leave is crucial for low-paid aged care workers the union says.
“Initially they said we’d have to use our annual leave and our sick leave. And then recently within the last month, they said they would give us two weeks’ unpaid leave if we were to [get] the virus,” enrolled nurse Melinda Vaz said of her employer of 13 years.
“But a lot of my fellow colleagues aren’t very happy with that. They’d prefer to have paid leave because you’ve still got bills at the end of the day,” she told Aged Care Insite.
“And what if you run out of annual leave and sick leave and then you’ve only got two weeks of unpaid leave? You’ve got nothing to support yourself. And who’s to say that, if we have it in this facility, that we [caught] it here or outside of the facility, coming in.”
Vaz worries that people will still feel forced to work, endangering themselves and residents if something is not done.
“If anybody has a slight sniffle or a cough and then they’re away, how are they going to replace them? Who are they going to replace them with?”
Carolyn Smith, the United Workers Union aged care national director, agrees, and she says that the longer the pandemic plays out, the more acute this issue will become in a sector that is already understaffed.
“I think there’s an economic issue for the workers about losing income, but there’s also a public health issue, particularly in aged care, where we see [for example] the Newmarch House situation and the advice then from the NSW Chief Health Officer to aged care workers to not come to work even if you’ve got a mild sore throat,” she told Aged Care Insite.
“That’s a lot of days in the next six months that people might wake up with a mild sore throat, and if they’re having to decide whether to come to work or not be paid, and that’s obviously casuals who don’t have any sick leave, but if you’ve used it up, it won’t take long to use up your sick leave.
“There’s an economic issue for those workers, and there’s a public health issue for the community, and particularly for just incredibly vulnerable people.”
To the predictable retorts from government and providers that there is no money for such provisions, Smith is left unmoved.
“The government does have money. The government is choosing to spend money, and at this moment we think this is a really important place for money to be spent.
“So, there’s a lot of money being spent and that’s a good thing – a lot of money being spent on the economy by the federal government and that’s a good thing. But this is a really important health issue as well.”
Smith applauds the comments made by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, from a public health perspective, but says that this does not marry up with the experience of an aged care worker on a low wage, especially at a time of mass unemployment where they may be the only earner in their family for the foreseeable future.
“He’s making a very important public health issue. That public health issue does not connect to the lived experience of many, many workers. Workers who are casual, workers who have used up their sick leave, low-paid workers who’ve used up their sick leave,” she said.
“The public health message doesn’t connect to the basic lived reality of many, many aged care workers.”
And this problem may speak to the wider issue of a sector under constant financial strain, says Smith.
“The funding model to the sector is broken. You can have a discussion about whether the providers are using the funding to the best of their ability, but where you have over 50 per cent of providers saying they’re running at a loss, and I think that’ll increase with the impacts of COVID, we have to accept that the funding model is broken,” she said.
Vaz simply wants to see any extra funding – as was announced in recent months – make its way to the workers.
“It needs to filter down to the carers because, I mean, I know
[providers] like to put a lot of money into other gadgets and other things, but at the end of the day it needs to be the people working on the floor that look after the residents,” she said.
“We’re the ones that are coming in, front-line workers, and we’re willing to take it on because these residents we find very important. We want to look after them properly – we just don’t want to abandon them.
“So we want to come to work, and we want to work, but we also want to be covered as well, because we may be frightened that if we come into work, we may take it back home to our own families.”
See the campaign details here.Do you have an idea for a story?
Email [email protected]