The government’s aged care ‘retention bonus’ has been plagued by controversy from the outset, and is widely seen to have been bungled by the government.

The Minister for Aged Care, Richard Colbeck, announced the aged care worker retention bonus back in March: a $800 payment for residential aged care staff and $600 for home care workers.

“We know we are asking a lot of this critical workforce as we face this unprecedented health emergency,” he said at the time. “Their work practices are changing – and today’s announcement is in recognition of this.”

But there was immediate dissatisfaction that staff in residential aged care facilities received a higher rate than aged care workers, and also question marks over the exclusion of other aged care workers who provide essential services in nursing homes. 

Why were the hard-working cleaners, cooks and laundry staff, to name a few, who are so essential to the smooth running of an aged care facility, left out?

Now a Senate Select Committee inquiry has heard the government has only received 1,500 applications for the retention bonus, and 584 facilities are yet to apply for the financial assistance package.

The next round of payments – a further 500 applications worth $48.3 million in total – will be paid on 14 August.

As of 31 July, $54.7 million had been paid out by the government to aged care staff under the retention bonus package.

Aged care staff are waiting

At HelloCare, many aged care workers have complained to us about the payment.

Many say they haven’t received the payment, and this latest revelation that 584 facilities have yet to apply for the payment could explain why.

Others have complained they have received the payment, but once it has been taxed, the final amount they receive is minimal.

The government’s backflip on the tax treatment of the bonus is another example of the government’s bungling.

When first announced, the payment was promoted as tax free. But when further details were released a couple of months later, it became apparent the payment would attract income tax after all.

Members of HelloCare’s Aged Care Worker Support Group say their payment has been taxed at the highest marginal tax rate. A $640 payment was reduced to $360 after tax. 

If the government thinks aged care staff providing direct care to those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 will be enticed to remain working in the industry by these payments, they should think again. Fortunately for us, for the residents, for our communities, aged care staff don’t do it for the money. They do it because they care.

But that is not good enough.

If there’s one thing this crisis has shown, it is that this undervalued workforce, often underpaid, with little job security and inadequate training, are absolutely essential. The government must be more thoughtful and effective in the support it provides these workers, and structural and systemic change is required.

Aged care employers must play their role too

Michael Lye, deputy secretary of the Department of Health, told the inquiry the department will be looking into why more providers haven’t applied for the bonus. 

“The department will be engaging with the sector… to ensure people who haven’t taken (the payment) up, do so. We obviously want facilities who haven’t applied, to apply,” he said.

With over $100 million remaining in the $234.9 million allocated to the package, the inquiry’s chair, Katy Gallagher, proposed the payment could be extended to other aged care workers, such as cooks and cleaners, who have been excluded from the payment so far.

Employers, at the very least, must play their role in ensuring aged care workers receive all the support – in this case the aged care worker retention bonus – they are entitled to. It’s the least they can do.

 

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