Home | Top Stories | Paid pandemic leave announced: union says it won’t reach all workers
ADF personnel at Epping Gardens Aged Care Home. Photo: Andrew Henshaw

Paid pandemic leave announced: union says it won’t reach all workers

Victorian aged care is struggling to contain the COVID-19 outbreak tearing through the system, with 952 active cases linked to aged care, including workers, and 87 facilities having active outbreaks, according to figures released by the state government.

About 80 per cent of Victoria’s new infections since May have been linked to workplace transmission and in light of this, the Fair Work Commission announced that aged care workers would be eligible for paid pandemic leave.

The ruling grants paid pandemic leave to staff working in residential aged care under the Aged Care Award, the Nurses Award and the Health Professionals Award.

The Fair Work Commission said the pandemic leave will:

  • apply to workers who are required by their employer or a government medical authority or on the advice of a medical practitioner to self-isolate because they display COVID-19 symptoms or have come into contact with a suspected case
  • is limited to up to two weeks’ paid leave on each occasion of self-isolation
  • not be paid to workers who are able to work at home or remotely during self-isolation.

No silver bullet

However, the United Workers Union believes that the new pandemic leave is not a “silver bullet” that will save Australia from a second wave of COVID-19 cases nationwide as many workers who are not on the award rates will still not be eligible.

According to a new survey nine out of 10 aged care workers said they could not afford to take unpaid leave if they needed to. Nine out of 10 aged care workers were worried their colleagues may come to work sick because they don’t have any sick leave.

“There’s two bits of the paid pandemic leave. There’s the decision in Fair Work, but unfortunately that only covers aged care workers who are directly on the award. It doesn’t cover any who have registered enterprise agreements. And the vast majority of aged care workers would be on a bargaining agreement. I couldn’t give you percentages, but off the top of my head, it’d be 70-80 per cent of workers would be covered by enterprise agreement,” said Carolyn Smith, aged care director for the United Workers Union.

“And when you start to look at numbers and bed sizes and stuff, there’s probably 10 or 20 big providers in each state that really had that proportion of the workforce.”

Smith says that the government has reacted too slowly to the effect the pandemic is having on the sector and she points to the outbreak in Newmarch House as the harbinger of the current situation in Victoria.

“We could have seen this coming; we certainly should have seen it coming after Newmarch. But you look around the world, aged care is a flashpoint because you’ve got the group of people who are most vulnerable to COVID because of their age and their physical condition,” she said.

“One of the issues in Victoria, when you look at everywhere where workplaces are now the highest area of spread. And they are all vulnerable workforces that are casual, that perhaps work a number of different jobs that are in communities that haven’t been communicated well with about COVID because they’re not English-speaking background communities.

“The federal government did almost nothing in this area. And now, are holding their hands up in the air, saying, ‘How did this happen?’ It’s quite clear that this was potentially going to happen.”

Listen to the experts

Smith says the government should be doing more to hear the concerns of unions, peak bodies and the workers themselves as they are the experts in the field.

She points to the survey by her union of 1000 aged care workers which found that two-thirds say they do not feel very prepared if there is a coronavirus outbreak at their centre and three in 10 say they have not had training in how to use personal protective equipment.

The survey also shows that workers feel their workload has risen as the pandemic has raged on.

Two-thirds of residential care workers and one half of home care workers say their workloads have increased while 75 per cent of workers say they don’t have enough staff to provide quality care.

Forty-four per cent of aged care workers said they would be unlikely to be working in the sector in five years’ time – up from 37 per cent last year – and surprisingly, more than half of frontline care workers say the Federal Government’s controversial retention bonus has had no impact on keeping them in the industry.

There has been anecdotal evidence that it has been difficult to access the bonus.

Jay Ali, an aged care worker from Queensland, said that residents are stressed and anxious about the pandemic and limited access to families and friends, and support from well trained staff is more important than ever.

“We did not get personal training about COVID-19, it was online. Half of the people didn’t even know there was training. We still need that to happen,” he said.

Other workers report that residents are going all day without staff even entering their rooms because of low staffing levels, and they say the pressure is taking its toll.

“It’s been so stressful, we go into someone’s house with a series of safety questions, but they may have dementia and not be able to answer them,” says home care worker Karen from NSW who did not want to use her full name.

“We sometimes have to buy our own PPE. We are under a hell of a stress out on the frontline, in the community, while we see the rest of the country is safely working from home. It makes us feel a bit unappreciated.”

Smith believes that some of the government rhetoric around the outbreaks in the sector amounts to criticism of the workforce. She believes that the issues seen now have not arisen overnight, rather the lack of funding and staffing cuts over the last few years are, in part, to blame for the large COVID-19 outbreaks across the nation.

Smith also agrees with Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ criticism of the private aged care homes in his state and believes a time may come when we must consider government control of the aged care sector.

“I think the Commonwealth government, the federal government has to take responsibility for the way they fund aged care. We’ve seen significant funding cuts in aged care. Not to the actual amount, but because more and more people are in aged care and they’re still getting the same amount of money per person, there’s been funding cuts.

“I think we have to think of everything [to improve aged care]. At the moment, the federal government gets away with it [poor care] because they’re two steps away from it.

“So we either have to have government run it or we have to have significantly more funding that is much more tied to the quality of care.”

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