Struggling to plug the workforce gaps
COVID is taking an appalling toll on nursing home residents and slashing workforce numbers to below the bare minimum.
For the past seven months, registered nurse Glen O’Driscoll has been a member of a COVID “Flying Squad” – a rapid-response workforce assembled by his employer, a residential aged care provider.
The Flying Squad is deployed to facilities with COVID outbreaks, to replace aged care workers who have become ill with COVID and cannot report for work.
A resident of the NSW South Coast, Glen is currently posted to Griffith in the Riverina district and has also been sent to the Central Coast and Far North Coast.
So severe is the staff shortage that he sometimes works from 7 am to 10 pm.
“Current versions of the virus appear to be less pathogenic but more contagious than earlier versions. People are now getting COVID two and three times, and facilities have been getting repeat outbreaks for some time,” he says.
“It’s hard and sometimes impossible to keep even a bare-bones workforce on the care-home floor when care staff have to isolate.”
Glen says a lot of very experienced RNs and care workers have left the sector due to inadequate staffing, bad working conditions, low pay and opposition to mandatory COVID vaccination.
He says the recent spike in aged care deaths reflects a trend observed in the UK.
“COVID contributes to the burden of disease in frail and aged people who already have multiple chronic health problems.
“While COVID may not be the single cause of death in the frail and aged, its additional physical burden contributes to a shortened life span and earlier death.”
He suspects a reduced quality of care may also be contributing to the increased death rate.
“When facilities are in COVID outbreak lockdown, residents have weeks of isolation and restricted mobility. Usual physical activity, social interaction and family contact declines.
“COVID also causes them to lose their appetite, so they lose weight.
“In aged care, most people who get COVID don’t bounce back well.”
Glen says the immediate challenge is to get enough care staff on the floor to meet minimum staffing levels and deliver essential care in a timely manner.
“Until that happens, you can’t begin to work on delivering the standard of care that the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has recommended.”
He thinks a pay rise from the case now before the Fair Work Commission will make the sector more attractive and improve staff recruitment and retention.
“It might also encourage people to enrol in TAFE and university courses to get their aged care qualifications.
“Even if existing workers get an immediate wage rise, it will still take time for new grads to fill the staffing gap.”
He says immigration will have to be part of the solution, but that will create additional pressure on the property market.
“Where are the tens of thousands of immigrant workers needed to fill the staffing gaps going to live?
“The rental property market is already under severe strain in all regions where aged care staff are needed.
“The low incomes of existing aged care workers mean they can’t afford to buy into property.”
Glen says the current 457 visa is unfair and discriminatory and needs to be changed.
“Good people I work with every day – Nepalese, Indians, Fijians and many other foreign workers – are effectively indentured workers.
“They are under strict visa conditions and must work wherever they are deployed.
“They won’t say anything about the injustices in the system, their difficult living circumstances, their poor wages or the extra overtime they’re asked to do, because they hope to eventually obtain permanent residency in Australia and are afraid of jeopardising their chances.
Glen says the aged care system is based on the “least cost model”.
“The deep social injustices delivered to all participants in the aged care system are a consequence of this model, which is incapable of meeting the staffing crisis.
“It cannot and never could deliver the standards of care recommended by the royal commission.
“The standards of care recommended by the royal commission must be adequately funded and staffed by federal and state governments if any meaningful change is to be effected.
“It’s up to aged care workers to advocate for change.”