Aged care needs more than bigger wages to increase worker value

Published on 2 April 2024 (Last updated on 9 April 2024)

Aged care workers have received a meaningful pay rise, but experts say more is needed to support them. [Source: Shutterstock]

The value of Australia’s aged care workforce needs to rely on more than just increased wages, with experts calling for an end to the chronic undervaluing of women in a female-dominated workforce.

Key points

  • The Fair Work Commission (FWC) announced direct care workers would receive an average pay rise of 23% (including the interim 15% from last year) with some workers looking at a 28% pay bump
  • Most indirect aged care employees missed out on a similar increase with their Aged Care Award rate growing by no more than 7%
  • Increased wages are a major boost for the female-dominated sector, however, there is the belief it will not change the way society values aged care

Aged care, including nursing in general, is a profession where women make up the bulk of the workforce. Others include childcare, primary school teaching and receptionist/administration work. 

Each sector provides invaluable support to society as a whole. However, Dr Joseph Carpini, Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia, told ABC that higher wages are unlikely to improve the general public’s perception of aged care work.

Dr Carpini said there is widespread value for male-dominated industries that feature traits such as competence, assertiveness and leadership, but not for traits like compassion and care in female-dominated jobs.

“We need to continue to become aware of these oftentimes unconscious biases we have against different types of work,” Dr Carpini said. 

“To argue that increasing their pay means that we will value them more is a bit counterintuitive. We should start valuing them more, which then we reflect in that differential amount that we pay.”

Dr Carpini viewed flexible work arrangements and stronger entitlements as other tools required to change perceptions of aged care, claiming that more innovative and creative ways to deliver exceptional care would help create better-quality jobs.

For the most part, aged care employers do provide an environment where employees have roster flexibility and opportunities for career development. But there are exceptions; many employees feel undervalued with little reward or recognition for the work they do. And if employees say they are undervalued then it’s understandable that society thinks the same. 

Cordelia Fine, a professor at the University of Melbourne, added that higher pay rates are one important element of increasing the value placed on care work. 

“There’s […] a devaluing that comes from the assumption that caring for others is something that women do ‘naturally’ and find emotionally rewarding,” Professor Fine told ABC.

Additionally, she told ABC that care workers would benefit from several high-quality rewards and entitlements, including subsidised housing, sabbaticals or discounts with third-party organisations – similar to what frontline workers receive through Blue Light Cards

“As the Beatles song goes, ‘money can’t buy me love’. [Care work] involves elements – genuine care and an ongoing relationship — that can’t really be given a market value,” she added.

The value of aged care itself may not be the biggest challenge going forward for aged care providers, though. With no news regarding who will fund the full pay rise, there are continuing concerns about financial sustainability.

The Government will need to step in to support the Aged Care Award and Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services (SCHADS) Award increases. Otherwise, providers will be digging into their pockets, taking away valuable resources that could be better used to further incentivise workers through entitlements and flexible work arrangements. 

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