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Care staff speak out at fair work pay rise case

Personal care workers are under increasing pressure to juggle residents' complex health needs while nurses are fleeing from the sector due to a lack of support, the fair work regulator has heard.

Last week, around 72 aged care staff, including registered nurses, personal care workers and chefs laid bare their concerns to the Fair Work Commission as part of an ongoing bid to lift sector wages.

They spoke of the impact of critical staffing shortages and the increasingly complex health needs of residents on their day-to-day jobs.

Associate Professor Maree Bernoth from Charles Sturt University's nursing school said over the past 20 years she has seen a significant reduction in the ratio of registered nurses (RN) to personal care workers.

"There are now not enough staff to work with, supervise or mentor care staff to show them what is important and what can be left for example, or how to prioritise care," she said.

"New RNs going into aged care usually do not have the benefit of a mentor. They are usually rostered on without another RN and so have to find their own way."

A lack of support and mentorship has placed significant stress on aged care staff, she said, and has contributed to large numbers of nurses leaving the sector.

Personal carer Geronima Bowers said the nature of aged care has changed significantly since she entered the workforce in 2006.

In the past, she said, people who would have previously entered aged care are now staying at home for longer, and those coming in are older and have serious mental and physical health issues.

"Nearly half of all residents in aged care have serious health or behavioural conditions like dementia and depression," she said.

"Trying to care for residents with these kinds of conditions means you need to have a team of healthcare workers like doctors, nurses and personal care workers.

"However, the reality is that many aged care providers are short staffed, and they try to make up the staff shortage by hiring more personal care workers."

Multiple witnesses gave evidence about the lack of adequate skills ratios among staff employed by aged care providers.

In-home carer Veroniqiue Vincent said due to shifting expectations and understaffing she is expected to fulfil the duties of a nurse.

"We handle medications, we tend to wounds, we take blood pressure," she said.

"We are often expected to do multiple things at once or complete this job quickly so that we can also get cleaning or other tasks the client wants done completed during a 30-minute service.

"Home support workers have not been recognised for these extra responsibilities either in position or pay."

Love for the industry remains strong

The majority of witnesses agreed that while their wages were too low they loved their jobs nonetheless.

Paul Jones, a personal care worker, said his work gave him the opportunity to contribute to the lives of residents through "day-to-care, advocacy, or simply bringing a smile to their face".

"This is especially important to me with those residents who receive few or no visitors," he told the hearing.

Administration officer and activities coordinator at Uniting Care, Fiona Gauci, said that for most people living in aged care homes "the building is their entire world".

"If you are having a bad day, you cannot put that energy on the resident as it can significantly impact them," she said.

"It doesn’t matter what life is like on the outside of the building, you always have to be positive towards the residents."

Care team leader Kerri Boxsell spoke about the enjoyment she gained from spending quality time with residents.

"We always try our best to take time out of our shift to talk to the residents," she said.

"For example, there is one resident who requires ice gel every day. I don't give her the ice gel during the morning medication rounds.

"I usually visit her later on in the day to apply the gel so that I can spend some one on one time with her. She really appreciates this."

The Fair Work Commission is expected to make a decision on the aged care work value case by the end of the year or by early 2023.

The newly appointed aged care ministers, Anika Wells and Mark Butler, are expected to make their submissions by September.

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