The Yass Branch of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association hosted an aged care solidarity rally outside Yass Hospital last week to raise awareness about the issues facing the sector. As Fair Work Commissioners visit residential aged care facilities during the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and Health Services Union’s historic 25 per cent award wage case, many NSW-based aged care nurses are considering how long they can persevere at work.

A survey of more than 2,000 NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) aged care members revealed 75 per cent were contemplating leaving the sector in the next year, unless urgent aged care reforms occurred.

It’s been more than a year since the aged care royal commission painted a damning picture of an understaffed aged care system with substandard care and an underpaid and under-trained workforce.

NSWNMA General Secretary, Brett Holmes, said unsafe workloads and low wages were the key reasons for wanting to leave, and reiterated calls for legislated staffing ratios and real wage increases for nurses, assistants in nursing and other care workers.

“Tackling the crisis in aged care has never been more important. The sector has been ignored for too long and the widespread neglect is a human rights issue, it cannot continue,” Brett said.

More than 80 per cent of respondents indicated they were short-staffed on their last shift before taking the survey, while 78 per cent said staffing was not safe and had impacted their ability to provide adequate care to residents. Member for Eden-Monaro Kristy McBain and Shadow Minister for Education and Women Tanya Plibersek climbed aboard a union member’s Ute to speak at the rally.

Kristy said aged care was a passion of hers after her mum worked in the sector for over 15 years. “There’s one thing that I know that after two years of a pandemic, we have protected the most vulnerable people in our society, including older Australians,” she said. “We need to start valuing the recommendations in the Royal Commission, we need to start implementing them, putting money towards them. Because if we don’t care for the most vulnerable people in our society, what are we doing?”

NSW Nurses and Midwives Association Yass Branch president Paul Haines said the union is hoping to make conditions safer through a change of government. He said they aim to make aged care a professional working environment and to reduce levels of attrition so nurses working in the sector can look forward to a good and productive career and the capability to provide the care needed.

“This is really important for the community to get behind because this is the lives of people that we’re talking about,” Paul said.

“This is people’s well-being, welfare, these are people that are very vulnerable, that need to be supported that need to be advocated for.” “So it’s really important that the community, get behind what we’re doing and stand up for our elderly care residents.”

“Labor has acknowledged the Age Care Royal Commission’s recommendations and has pledged to legislate staffing ratios, ensure a registered nurse is on duty around the clock, and supports a real wage rise. However, the Morrison government’s aged care policies will not fix the current crisis,” added Mr Holmes.

Kristy, who is currently campaigning with Labor to retain her seat in the Federal Election, said the Coalition has spent more than double the Labor Party has spent in the lead up to this election.

“We’re a trillion dollars in debt and yet there is no generational dividend that the Liberal Party can point to,” she said.

While the Coalition has pledged billions in aged care funding since the royal commission, Labor is making aged care a key election platform, promising $2.5 billion over four years for measures including better food, stricter reporting rules for providers, and greater penalties for covering up abuse.

“This is a party that doesn’t care about individuals in our society, doesn’t care about the most vulnerable, and has shown that because they haven’t implemented a single recommendation of the aged care Royal Commission.”

The royal commission’s recommendation of increased award wages to attract more workers to the sector was left to the Fair Work Commission by the Morrison Government. The Coalition has said it would ensure the Fair Work decision was honoured but hasn’t committed to fully funding it through government subsidies.

“We are committed to fixing the crisis in our aged care system and I want to be part of a government that looks after people right across the spectrum of our society,” Kristy said. The Coalition committed to mandating 200 minutes of care and a registered nurse onsite 16 hours a day by October 23. While Labor has made nurses and care minutes a plank of its election platform, promising to have 24/7 registered nurses by July 2023, 200 minutes of care per day by October 2023 and 215 minutes of care per day by October 2024.

But since the campaign began, the Coalition has changed its lines on nurses. Minister Anne Ruston told Sky News in April that the Coalition had “accepted the recommendation … for nursing staff to be on premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week” but also accepted “the commission’s recommendation that it would take us until 2024”.

Brianna O’Rourke