Australia’s aged care system is once again facing disruption and uncertainty as the Federal Government’s deadline for mandatory vaccination of aged care workers expires today.
It follows on the heels of the revelations from the recent Royal Commission into the aged care sector that found systemic problems with substandard care occurred largely as a result of an understaffed, overworked, underpaid workforce reliant on insecure jobs.
Those issues could be further exacerbated by the vaccine mandate deadline according to the Health Services Union (HSU).
Lauren Hutchins is the Aged Care and Disabilities Division Secretary with the HSU for New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT. She told On the Job that the pressure on staff, already acute in the sector, is set to intensify further over the coming weeks.
Hutchins is frustrated that the lag in vaccinating aged care workers has caused a stampede to an arbitrary deadline that is certain to result in further staff shortages.
“If we had a vaccine strategy that was a concurrent rollout with residents and aged care workers from February, we wouldn’t be having a discussion now,” said Hutchins.
“Just days away from a mandatory requirement to be vaccinated, we are talking about 9% of the workforce still yet to vaccinate.
The United Workers Union (UWU) is also concerned about its members in the aged care sector. Aged Care Director of UWU, Carolyn Smith said, “The vaccine rollout has been bungled from the get-go, not just through the lack of availability and access but through confusing and mixed messaging coming from the different layers of Government.”
With many still unvaccinated workers set to be denied an opportunity to continue working, the consequences for staff and residents will be acute, according to Lauren Hutchins.
“We are certain that five to 10 per cent of the workforce will be unvaccinated [by today’s deadline]. There are also pockets of the country where vaccination rates are generally lower,” Hutchins explained.
“So we know that there are going to be places that will have critical staff shortages come Saturday. What happens to workers in those workplaces is that they need to meet the shortfalls?
“We know that there are already 12-hour shifts that have been implemented in rosters in aged care and when you are working 12 hours back-to-back, that is really worrying for workers, residents and their families.
“We’ve just come out of an Aged Care Royal Commission that highlighted the problems facing an undervalued, under-resourced, underpaid workforce. We are just going to see this repeat where people will be working themselves to a point that is incredibly unsafe.”
The HSU is adamant that it will see a 100 per cent vaccinated workforce, but it is concerned that in a sector already struggling to cope with demand, the attrition rates for staff will be very difficult to make up.
Lauren Hutchins said that the ramifications are hard to quantify.
“How many workers do we lose? For those workers who do leave the sector because they chose to remain unvaccinated, you’ve got to go, it’s mandatory, no if, no buts.”
“What happens to the workers that are left behind? Even if we lose 5% of the workforce out of this, we’ve already got a workforce that is under stress, and under-resourced.
“It will mean that 10 or 12-hour rosters will become the norm, which is hugely problematic. We will see incredible stress on those remaining workers. We couldn’t afford to lose one per cent [of the workforce] to lose five per cent is going to put huge strains on an already stressed workforce.
“These guys have been on the front line for 18 months. That means full PPE for eight to 10-hour shifts. You’re working in workplaces where residents with dementia who are now not having any family or friends visit them and who are highly agitated, highly stressed.
“You’re not only their carer, but you’re also having to support them with their mental health. You are providing every aspect of their care that otherwise, the community would be able to step in.
“It has been a highly stressful workplace without now having fewer workers on the floor to undertake that work.”
The HSU is engaging in a concerted effort to encourage all its members to get vaccinated as the deadline passes. Hutchins is determined to remind everyone that a commitment to be vaccinated is not just the correct path for your personal wellbeing but has important ramifications for the entire community.
“We’re all citizens, and we all have a responsibility to each other as well, particularly in the spaces where you’re dealing with vulnerable people,” Hutchins told On the Job
“I have a responsibility when I hop in my car to drive safely, I have an absolute responsibility to my community if I want to participate in it that I make sure I don’t pass on a deadly disease.”