Agency nurses are being forced to apply for Centrelink benefits despite Australia being in the midst of the worst health crisis in living memory.
Janette* is an endorsed enrolled nurse (EEN), and has been working in aged care for six years.
She comes from a nursing family – her mother and grandmother were nurses – and they have always always been proud of their ability to find work in a range of places and at various stages of their lives.
But COVID-19 has changed that.
“I always said you can always get a job as a nurse. But I don’t believe that any more,” Janette told HelloCare.
Agency shifts disappearing
Agency nursing shifts have dried up completely, Janette told HelloCare when we caught up earlier in the week. As a consequence, many nurses are struggling to make ends meet despite the heavy demands on the healthcare system in the response to COVID-19.
Janette is on the books of two aged care agencies and is on a casual bank for an aged care facility. But at the beginning of February, when fears about COVID-19 began ramping up, she noticed agency shifts were disappearing.
“Scared” aged care facility staff are cancelling holidays and they’re not taking sick leave, so shifts are just not becoming available, Janette suggested. Nurses who worked in surgeries that have been closed have also absorbed some of the available work. “It’s like a ripple effect,” Janette said.
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary, Annie Butler, told HelloCare the work shortages are an unintended consequence of COVID-19 staffing measures.
“In preparing to surge the workforce and our hospital capacity for the potential COVID-19 outbreak, which was absolutely the right thing to do, we saw an unintended consequence for casual nurses across all sectors due to significantly reduced activity losing hours and shifts,” she told HelloCare.
Working between facilities poses a challenge
Ms Butler said ANMF members also claim employers are trying to restrict aged care workers to only one employee, with disastrous consequences for casual and agency staff.
“Our members are reporting… their employer is seeking to limit them to one employer only, without offering them additional hours to compensate for the loss of work and income.
“We are investigating the legality of this situation and will be discussing these issues with the government.”
Janette said she does have a degree of relief she’s working less between facilities.
The aged care facility where she is on the casual bank has excellent infection control measures, and when working in a less controlled environment she might be more at risk of being exposed to the virus and forced to stay home for two weeks – leaving her without an income.
Workers forced to live off credit cards
Since early February, Janette has only worked one six-hour agency shift, and no future shifts are showing up on the app she uses to access jobs. “A lot of other nurses are in the same boat as me,” she said.
“There have been people who haven’t had work, or they’ve only had one shift a week.”
These nurses are being forced to live off their credit cards, with many only having minimal savings. Nurses with children will receive parenting payments, while others are being forced to join the queues at Centrelink.
“They’ll take whatever (financial support) they can,” Janette said.
Janette counts herself one of the lucky ones. She is still able to work some shifts at the aged care facility where she is on the casual bank.
Aged care casuals often not entitled to government payments
Many aged care staff will not be entitled to government COVID-19 support payments, and those who are will only receive the payments from May.
“To be an eligible casual employee, a person must have had regular and systematic casual work with the one employer for the 12 months from 1 March 2019,” Ms Butler explained.
“In addition, because employers must demonstrate a 30% downturn in business, it may be possible that a number of casually employed nurses will be ineligible to receive payments.”
Nurses working in the public sector or for private hospitals generally won’t be eligible either, Ms Butler said.
The nurses without work are struggling, Janette told HelloCare. “They don’t know what’s coming week to week. It’s like a mind game.”
But working during COVID-19 is also full of challenges, she said.
“It’s exhausting going to work. Someone coughs or sneezes and you think, ‘am I going to get a call tomorrow’. You never know. It’s such unpredictable times.”
When Janette realised she wasn’t coping, her workplace provided her with telephone counselling services, which have helped. “I picked up that I was stressed and I called them, but a lot of people aren’t aware of that free service that the workplace provides,” Janette noted.
Casual aged care staff need greater protections
“Measures to assist the aged care workforce, including how to ensure vacancies are filled, should be put in place across the sector,” Ms Butler suggested.
“Aged care workers required to self-isolate or take leave must be paid and the cost of replacement staff met.
“Casual employees in particular must be supported. They are likely to lose work and also not be eligible for JobKeeper.”
* Name has been changed.
Image: Martin-dm, iStock.