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Aged care sector under stress: unions

Australia’s aged care crisis has worsened since the royal commission into the troubled sector with staffing a major issue, according to a prominent union.

United Workers Union aged care director Carolyn Smith, speaking to a Senate committee examining new legislation stemming from the royal commission, said shifts remained unfilled at “literally any facility you walk into around Australia”.

It comes as worker bodies cited a “lack of detail” in the new legislation, which includes the introduction of nationally-consistent pre-employment screening and a new code of conduct.

It also extends the reporting of serious incidents from residential care to include home care and flexible care, and includes new governance responsibilities for approved providers.

Ms Smith said the legislation ignored a number of issues currently facing workers including a lack of work hours and the attraction, retention and training of staff.

“You’re talking about screening without thinking about all those other issues, without thinking about wages, without thinking about how burnt out and exhausted the current workforce is,” she said.

“I find it very problematic this is the first piece of legislation we’re dealing with around quality of care.”

Health Services Union aged care and disabilities manager Lauren Hutchins, pointing to a royal commission recommendation calling for a national registration scheme including mandatory qualifications and ongoing training requirements, labelled the draft bill “legislation light”.

“It is light in substance and in detail and that is problematic for a workforce that is tired and fatigued,” she said.

“We have an opportunity to rethink and revalue the aged care workforce but we must do it right. The holes in the legislation, the ‘we will wait until later to give you the detail’ is hugely problematic.”

The royal commission found nearly 40 per cent of people living in Australia’s aged care facilities experienced elder abuse, and that legislation focused on aged care provider funding rather than older people’s care needs.

Ms Hutchins, who echoed the need to reshape the sector and implement an effective code of conduct, said the legislation did not acknowledge that failures in aged care were “deeply cemented” in a lack of staff, resources and support.

“The code of conduct, in trying to single out workforce and failing to recognise the obligations of organisations and fundamentally the government, is hugely problematic to us,” she said.

“We want a code of conduct that delivers a robust change to aged care, that delivers for older Australians, that delivers for the workforce, but we want the detail and we want it to be done correctly.”

Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia chairperson Mary Patetsos told the inquiry the royal commission did not sufficiently deal with the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse people, estimated to make up more than 35 per cent of those in aged care.

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