Unions have criticised the federal government’s proposal to give aged care workers an $800 bonus as a political ploy, arguing more systemic wage rises are needed in the sector.
The new policy will see two payments of up to $400 each paid to aged care workers in government subsidised home care, as well as workers providing direct care, food or cleaning services in residential care.
The move comes amid concerns these workers are struggling under the immense pressure caused by COVID-19 ripping through these facilities.
But Health Services Union National President (HSU) Gerard Hayes has described the government's response as a “pre-election political strategy” rather than a “serious plan” to fix the “chronic underpayment”.
“We have a sustained crisis that has been brewing for years,” he said.
“Yet all we get is more short-term political management, more kicking the can down the road, more denial of reality.”
The cash bonus would be paid on a pro-rata basis - proportionally - on hours worked and the first payment would be made in February, with the second to come by early May.
The HSU has launched a case in the Fair Work Commission seeking pay rises for aged care workers of 25 per cent, or at least $5 more an hour.
A damning royal commission into the sector last year recommended an increase in the award wages of workers in the sector, suggesting the industry should coordinate a consensus position on this front that included the federal government.
But Superannuation Minister Liberal Senator Jane Hume said the government would not support such a case to increase aged care worker wages.
“A $5 per hour increase would dramatically increase the costs of an aged care workforce. We want to make sure that this is a sustainable system going into the future,” she told ABC Radio.
She defended the timing of the latest announcement, saying the government has taken action to address concerns over systemic issues in the sector.
“The $17.7 billion economic response to the Aged Care Royal Commission aims to do exactly that, make the system more resilient, make sure that it is well resourced,” she said.
“That’s what Australians expect from an essential service like aged care.”
As COVID-19 has rapidly spread through the sector, there have been 389 deaths recorded in aged care in January alone, more than throughout the whole of 2021 at 282.
According to data released last Friday, COVID-19 outbreaks were active in 1,261 residential aged care facilities nationally, including 555 in NSW and 296 in Victoria.
United Workers Union Aged Care Director Carolyn Smith said the cash payments would provide some “relief” for those working in the virus-ravaged sector, but did not go far enough.
“The aged care industry is at absolute breaking point and I am not sure these bonuses will fix the systemic issues in the industry,” she said.
Aged care providers have warned they’re struggling to stay afloat with about 30 per cent of workers off sick or isolated at home.
Concerns have also been raised that some aged care residents are being forced to go without showers and meals, and have had their wounds left undressed due to the worker shortage.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly announced the cash bonuses during a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
He said the payments were being made directly to deal with the workforce challenges caused by the Omicron variant.
"What we're doing here is helping the aged care providers give that support to aged care workers during this pandemic to be able to keep them there working in those facilities," he said.
But Labor leader Anthony Albanese has accused Mr Morrison of trying to buy the support of aged care workers through the response.
“A cash payment that does nothing to lift the payments of aged care workers beyond the next federal election is an appalling response,” he told reporters.
Mr Albanese said if elected he would make a submission to the Fair Work Commission supporting an increase in wages for aged care workers.
“Aged care workers will see through this, they know they’ve been neglected by this government just as aged care residents have been,” he said.
Mr Morrison said a process was underway with the Fair Work Commission, and the government would "let that process follow its course."