Better pay and conditions for aged care staff should be part of accreditation process and service agreements, NZ aged care work expert says

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Governments need to recognise its role as the “head of the supply chain” and ensure aged care staff are part of any funding and service agreements as well as accreditation processes if they want to improve pay and conditions for workers, according to Dr Katherine Ravenswood (pictured above), an Associate Professor in Workplace Relations at Auckland University of Technology.

For 35 minutes, Dr Ravenswood – who leads the New Zealand Aged Care Workforce Survey and has also researched the outcomes of New Zealand’s historic equal pay settlement which saw 55,000 aged care and disability workers receive pay rises between 15 and 50% in 2017 – said while the pay settlement increased wages and improved conditions for workers, there have been a number of unintended negative consequences.

“What has happened is changes in how these workers are managed. So, for example, the way that training is delivered has been changed,” she told Counsel Assisting Erin Hill. “It’s more likely to be – or qualification study is more likely to be delivered via online courses with less on-the-job training. And that is to minimise the cost involved in training. There has been a change in how workers are recruited and many employers are aiming to recruit people with no qualifications in aged care because they are cheaper to employ. In some instances, some of the workers have had their hours reduced and not by their choice. And that is often because they are on the higher wage levels in the scale. And particularly in home and community support, some workers have had their overall income decreased after the settlement has been implemented because their hours have systematically been reduced by their employer.”

Dr Ravenswood added that the changes also didn’t cover all of the costs of the settlement including the greater reporting and administrative requirements (bureaucratic spaghetti) for employers, and hasn’t shifted the perceived low-value of aged care work in the community.

Ms Hill (pictured below) was keen to know how Australia could avoid those consequences – suggesting the Royal Commission is seriously weighing up how to improving pay levels in aged care.

Dr Ravenswood argued that labour standards should be tied to both the funding model and the accreditation process.

“There are very low middle staffing levels required,” she stated. “For example, you could give one care worker to 30 residents in a rest home and that would meet the minimum requirements. And that is the basis of the funding model. So, I think it’s important that labour standards are prioritised and that they’re met through multiple – through all aspects of regulating aged care.”

The researcher added that Government needs to step back in and recognise that it is not just a funder, but the head of the supply chain – and use that power to improve the lot for workers.

“If the service for – the agreement for services included labour standards and the accreditation included clear labour standards then this would put a very strong message that labour standards were an integral and important part of delivering high quality care,” she said. “If they were included in accreditation, then that would also allow monitoring and enforcement of those standards as well. And it would provide incentive to aged care providers to meet those because if they didn’t then they may lose their accreditation and, of course, their business.”

Dr Ravenswood also highlighted the importance of a social campaign to raise the public perception of aged care work, saying it was the missing element in the 2017 settlement.

“We’ve had some around smoking in New Zealand, for example,” she said. “I remember people used to smoke everywhere and now we can’t. So that’s advertising that puts the message of what we are aiming for, what we do view as being ideal and good. So, it could be that kind of messaging through social media, TV and other avenues that governments use for, say, health promotion, social campaigns.”

Dr Ravenswood insisted however that any regulations would need to come from the Government – and wouldn’t be able to be enforced by a voluntary code.

“International research shows that voluntary codes are not as effective and they are often monitored by the business or the employer themselves,” she explained. “So, they’re very difficult to enforce.”

The researcher pointed out that there has been more success with consumer-based codes.

“That could be a possibility that might create some of the social change necessary as well, if consumers and their families started demanding a code or a certain level of labour standards,” she said.

Could that mean a star rating system where residents and families have oversight of staffing numbers – and pay?

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