More workers like Betty, 75, could solve this sector’s woes

Article by Euan Black courtesy of the Australian Financial Review.

Betty Hurrell, 75, has worked in aged care for 31 years but won’t retire any time soon.

She tried retirement for three weeks when she was 71 and said it was “terrible”.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can’t stand this’.”

Betty Hurrell, 75, has no plans to retire from what she describes as a “rewarding” career in aged care. Roy VanDerVegt

Ms Hurrell missed helping those in need and sharing her expertise with younger colleagues, and she knew her experience was sorely needed.

“I know how to give support and have patience,” she said. “I know how to cope when there’s a behaviour issue, where some people could really not understand that part of it.”

With the aged care industry facing an estimated shortfall of 35,000 workers this year, attracting and retraining experienced staff like Adelaide-based Ms Hurrell is critical for employers.

Companies are offering more training courses and access to free sessions with a pyschologist in a bid to lure more workers. But even those offering wages well above industry award rates are struggling to put on enough staff.

Two employers told The Australian Financial Review the federal government could help plug the gaps by going further in its relaxation of work rules for pensioners.

Follow NZ lead

After this month’s Jobs and Skills Summit, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that from December the total annual amount a pensioner could earn from a job without having their pension payments cut would rise from $7800 to $11,800, at an estimated cost to the federal budget of $55 million.

Advocacy groups and employers welcomed the changes, which apply only to the current financial year, but said they were too conservative to have a significant effect on workforce participation rates among older Australians.

Instead, they want the government to follow New Zealand’s lead and allow pensioners to earn as much as they like without it affecting their pension.

Prestige Inhome Care chief executive Nick McDonald is one employer calling for these changes. Mr McDonald employs 750 care staff but needs to hire another 150 over the next six months to keep pace with demand.

Severe labour shortages forced Prestige to temporarily turn away new clients during the omicron wave in December for the first time in its 18-year history, despite the company offering wages between 9 per cent and 38 per cent above industry award rates.

Mr McDonald said Prestige also paid staff to attend training courses and offered them up to four free sessions with a psychologist every year. But despite these efforts, he said Centrelink rules were discouraging staff over 65 from taking on extra shifts because they would lead to a cut in their pension.

“Why would you invent a situation where there’s a disincentive for someone to contribute to their community?” Mr McDonald asked.

Mark McBriarty, executive director of South Australia-based home care services provider My Care Solution, which employs Ms Hurrell, said his company had also had to turn away new clients because of staff shortages.

“Two years ago, we would put an ad in the local paper and get 25 applicants. If I did it now, we’d get one or two,” he said.

The company, which needs to hire seven employees a month to meet demand, has adapted to the difficult hiring conditions by placing a greater emphasis on upfront training and focusing more on hiring older workers. The average age across its multiple traineeship programs over the past two years is about 54.

Mark McBriarty says his company’s attempts to give more shifts to older staff like Betty Hurrell are being hamstrung by restrictive Centrelink rules. Roy VanDerVegt

But like Mr McDonald, Mr McBriarty said age pension rules were discouraging many of his 200 workers from taking on extra shifts.

Ms Hurrell is a case in point. She works 30 hours a fortnight but would “certainly” take on more shifts if work rules for pensioners were relaxed further.

She said she needed the extra money because the cost of living was surging and she and her husband had been responsible for supporting their grandson since their daughter died 12 years ago.

“It seems to me that the government is telling us what we can do and what we can’t do, which doesn’t make sense,” she said of the pension rules.


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