Royal commission hearings into the aged care workforce continued on Wednesday, with witnesses describing alarmingly low staff numbers at a major provider, aged care staff as the “working poor”, and the acceptance of violence in the workplace as something staff had to “accept”.

Paul Gilbert, assistant secretary of the Victorian branch of the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation, described the low staff numbers employed at some of the country’s largest aged care providers.

One home had only five staff rostered at night for 106 residents – four personal care assistants and one registered nurse. In the morning, 19 staff were on duty, and in the afternoon 18 staff were employed.

Rushed staff contributing to assaults

He said assaults are occurring in aged care in part because staff are rushed.

“It’s a consequence of being rushed,” he told the commission. “People are rushing people to comply with their timelines and that’s creating a situation where someone who has already got issues around their mental competence is getting frustrated and angry at being forced down a path and that’s a consequence of being rushed.

“People are getting six minutes to get a resident out of bed, washed, in a chair, in a lounge room. It’s just madness,” he said.

Reforms in 1997 meant funding no longer tied to care

Mr Gilbert’s statement to the royal commission described how protections for staff pay were removed in 1997, and that funding could then be set aside for other costs and profit margin.

Prior to the reforms, approximately 70-75 per cent of funding had to be spent on care, and any of that funding not spent was returned to the government. This breakdown was closely monitored by the government.

“From this time onwards, homes were required to meet accreditation, rather than allocate protected funding to nursing,” Mr Gilbert’s statement states.

As soon as the year after the reform, operators were reporting spending on care as a proportion of funding as low as 56 per cent.

Aged care staff the “working poor”

Lisa Alcock, a representative of the Health Workers Union, said staff that are effectively the “working poor” could not be expected to provide high quality care.

She said the union regularly hears from aged care staff frustrated about their “incredibly” low rates of pay.

“I feel that you can’t have a high quality of care if you (are)… working them into poverty,” she said.

Ms Alcock said high rates of workplace violence are also a common source of frustration for aged care union members.

“The alarming rate of occupational violence… is just something you have to accept when you work in aged care,” she said.

Staff could earn more “on the checkout at Aldi”

Ms Alcock said she hears from staff who question why aged care staff are so poorly paid. One woman said she hires a man to clean her gutters for $150 and yet she is only paid $21 to clean a person which also involves providing “dignity and care and support to that person”.

Another aged care worker said her husband, who has not qualifications, earns $100,000 in an aluminium smelter, whereas she has a TAFE qualification and only earns $21 an hour, or the equivalent of $40,000 annually.

Mr Gilbert said he often hears from members who say they could earn more “working on the checkout at Aldi”.

“It’s technically true,” he said. “They see themselves as – ‘Why is my life treated as being – my – what I dedicate myself to being seen as of less worth than that position?’.

“And that’s, interestingly, what they tend to compare themselves to, because they see those jobs advertised with an hourly rate of $24, $25 and $26 dollars. Our enrolled-nurse and registered-nurse members are paid more than the personal-care-worker cohort but not by a whole lot more,” Mr Gilbert said.

The hearings continue.

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