Right now, the aged care sector is the epicentre of the fight against COVID-19 in Victoria. There are currently 7,877 actives cases in Victoria, with 1,144 of those in Victorian aged care settings where 184 deaths having tragically taken place.  Deaths in aged care make up 64% of Victorian COVID-19 related deaths with the truly scary statistic being that there have only been 17 people in Victorian aged care settings that have recovered from COVID-19.  At the heart of this battle are the aged care workers who are tasked with caring for and protecting those in aged care settings. The residents of such facilities are among the state’s most medically vulnerable.
The devastating effect of the pandemic has highlighted the sector’s absence of preparation and infrastructure for a highly contagious virus. However, it has also pulled back the curtain on a clear inequality: the wage of an aged care worker. These wages reveal a sector that is under-paid, under-trained and ultimately disadvantaged by the spread of a lethal virus.
An unfair wage
The hourly wage of a full or part-time aged care employee is between $21.09 and $25.62, and casual employees earn between $26.36 and $32.03 per hour.  The base level is just above the government regulated minimum wage. 
This is a wage level that aims to adequately compensate an aged care employee for an hour’s worth of responsibilities that includes dressing, bathing, feeding and monitoring the health of mostly elderly residents. Aged care workers must also administer medication, and communicate with residents and their families with compassion and humility.  The daily duties of an aged care worker are rigorous and essential to the lives of more than 200,000 Australians. Yet, how much can we truly ask from aged care workers when they are reimbursed for their efforts with such a low level of income?
COVID-19 has also dramatically transformed the level of risk associated with working in aged care. Aged care workers are on the ‘front line’ of the fight against COVID-19, and are at massive risk of contagion. Yet, their wages have essentially remained flat. In terms of income support, the Federal Government has announced two payments of up to $800 for residential aged care workers. These payments are taxable and lower for casual and part-time workers that work less than 30 hours per week. 
This federal policy response seems inequitable given that workplace risk plays a significant role in calculating wages. Indeed, it is argued that workers in ‘hazardous’ places of employment are paid a wage premium to compensate for heightened risk of occupational diseases and injury.  Take, for example, a miner in Western Australia. The mean salary for a miner in 2011 in WA was $108,000, well above the median national salary of $66,000 across all occupations.  While mining salaries fluctuate based on the supply and demand for Australia’s minerals, there is still a significant risk premium factored into these wages because working underground in a mine is known to be more dangerous than most other occupations.
Thus, an aged care worker’s wage bespeaks a level of compensation that is not just economically unfair. Indeed, the wage foregrounds a clear imbalance between the social expectations and pressures placed on aged care workers and the financial treatment that they are then served. In essence, Australian aged care workers are drastically under-valued.
So why are aged care wages so low?
The low wage of an aged care worker is largely justified by a lack of extensive training or qualifications. To become a certified aged care worker, a person is required to study a Certificate III in Individual Support, which takes six months, plus conduct an on-site traineeship at an aged care facility.  This means that it can take less than 12 months to become a fully qualified aged care worker, whereas it takes at least three years to become a qualified nurse or allied health professional. This results in the labelling of the aged care workforce as ‘low skilled’, which seeks to validate the relatively low wage.
However, the potential consequences of these minimal training requirements can be seen through the devastating impact of COVID-19 on aged care facilities. At the NewMarch House, an aged care facility in NSW where 19 residents died from COVID-19, it is alleged that staff were not correctly trained on the use of PPE.  In fact, it has been reported that staff were only instructed to wear full PPE when around positive or suspected cases of COVID-19. 
An exposed workforce
Over recent decades, the increasing casualisation of the health sector has been reflected through the aged care workforce.  While a casual worker receives a slightly higher hourly rate than a full or part-time worker, this ‘casual loading’ seeks to compensate for an absence of sick or annual leave. Without access to paid leave, a casually employed worker in aged care must work in order to receive income. When a fatal pandemic hits, this can create a scenario which leaves a low-income earner, with potentially little savings and ongoing costs and bills, with little incentive to stay home when experiencing symptoms.
On 29 July, the Fair Work Commission announced that all aged care workers will have access to two weeks’ worth of paid pandemic leave while COVID-19 continues to remain active in the community.  However, it raises a key question: why did the policy response take so long? On 29 July, there were almost 500 active cases of COVID-19 in aged care facilities, and there had already been 47 deaths. 
Moreover, the vulnerability of casual aged care employees is amplified by the nature of their working arrangements, as many are employed across different facilities in the same week.  This agreement results in a scattering of workplaces and a potential spread of the virus from one facility to another. This issue has been identified by the Victorian Government, and they announced measures at the end of July to restrict aged care workers to one facility in the same week.  However, this policy response, again, has come too late for many aged care workers and elderly residents.
The future for aged care workers
The aged care sector is embroiled in an unprecedented battle against a pandemic that no sector or industry was entirely prepared to face. However, the impact of COVID-19 on residential aged care facilities, particularly in Victoria, has been nothing short of catastrophic. Faced with an aging national population, this is a sector that will need to employ more than 600,000 extra employees by 2050.  The mandatory rapid growth of the aged care workforce over the next 30 years raises an important question: when will we start treating aged care workers fairly?
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