Matters That Count is an initiative that calls on groups of like-minded friends to get together and screen their federal election candidates, asking them to declare their hand on 8 core matters that, we believe, go to the heart of who we are as thoughtful, compassionate citizens.
One of these matters is Wage Justice for Women: calling for significant increases in award wages for aged care employees and early childhood educators and carers, challenging and vital professions that are dominated by women. The award rate for aged care workers is currently $23.68 per hour.
We got together with aged care worker and VWT volunteer Alex Collins to talk about her experience of the highs and lows of working in aged care, and why she hopes Australians get behind wage increases for these crucially important workers this election year.
Watch the video and read the transcript below:
VWT: Hi, Alex. Hello. Thank you so much for talking to us
Alex: Not a problem at all.
VWT: I would love to start if you could just tell me a little bit about what it is that you do for living?
Alex: No, no worries. Well, I’m a student at Latrobe University doing my masters degree in International Development. But in my working life, I work as a kitchen assistant in aged care. And I’ve been doing that for about two years now. So yeah, doing the morning tea, cleaning, chatting to the residents, which has been very important, especially with what’s going on with COVID, not being able to see everyone. But yeah, so I do that a couple times a week, which is just been a great job to have throughout uni. It’s been very flexible. I’ve just come back from work. I’m in my uniform now. So yeah, that’s, that’s what I’m up to at the moment.
VWT: So fair to say you you like your job?
Alex: Oh yeah. I love my job. I enjoy it. I’m, I’m not the youngest in the kitchen anymore. That title has been taken away from me. We’ve got a 19-year-old guy. And I’m 22. So not the baby anymore. But yeah, I very much I enjoy my job. I get to chat to the residents about their day seeing how they’re going. They always get to make fun of my new hairstyles. And when I get new tattoos, because I am the young one there. And I have to take it on board. It’s rough, but someone has to do it. So I’m absolutely happy to of course.
VWT: What are your relationships like with these with the people who live in the aged care home where you work?
Alex: Well, you can’t do a job like this without making relationships with the people that that you’re serving. Because in the end, whilst I work, obviously, in an aged care facility, the residents are the people that I essentially work for, like I try and make their lives as exciting as I can. Because you can’t be in a situation where you’re seeing these people, sometimes every day when I’m not at uni, I work very often maybe six days a week, you can’t just see these people and not have a connection with them. So there’s people that I’ve known for the whole time, I’ve been at work for two years or something, who come and go if they’re in respite and you say hello, how you doing, how are your family going? But yeah, in this sort of line of work, like when you’re seeing these people. You’re seeing their family members, you’re seeing some people deteriorate, some people getting better. Yeah, I’m, I’m close with a fair amount of the residents and they, yes, it’s very fun going to see them sometimes if I’m in the mood, I’ll do a dance for them. I dance for some people’s birthdays, not not everyone. Not everyone is you know, got to pick and choose, but um yeah, it just yeah, it depends on the weather, depends on how I’m feeling. You know, but it’s just it’s been really great. It’s just been awesome. Especially when we were locked down,I wasn’t able to see my grandparents, I was able to go in into sort of this environment where I was basically everyone else’s grandchild for a little while and now all their families are back and I’m like, come on, the favouritism’s gone.
VWT: You mentioned the pandemic, what was it like during that time where, we’re both in Melbourne, so that we were both in lockdown for a long time? What was it like being in that environment?
Alex: So it was relatively normal for, I’d say the first year and a half. And when I say relatively normal, I mean we jump in and out of wearing PPE, various types of PPE. So we have the face shields, goggles, whatever you need. I wear face shields because I wear glasses. Of course, we’d have mask who’s definitely changed. We’ve changed our masks now. We used to have the, like the three ply blue ones. But now all aged care facilities have to wear and N95 or K95, I believe. So we’ve got different masks going on.
But yeah, so last year, in the year before, we’d wear the full gowns, gloves, duties, and everything, because you don’t wanna be tracking anything throughout the facility. And so we’d have to swap out our gowns. Every time we jumped from different areas, because we have three different areas of the facility. So yeah, that was, yeah, constant and a lot of waste. Because obviously everything is plastic. Yeah, you just pull it all off. It’s all single use. So yeah, in the end, we actually just to sort of cut costs, we had plastic gowns to begin with, because we’re kitchen staff, and we sometimes go into the units three, four times in a shift. And there’s three people in the kitchen. So we had like cloth ones that they would wash, like repeatedly, because it’s just we had to go in there all the time. But yeah, so that was the PPE, that was probably the biggest sort of thing that we had, in that in the first sort of three quarters of the COVID situation.
And then yeah, at the start of this year, and a little bit at the end of last year, we had COVID into the facility. So we had everyone doing rapid antigen tests every day before entering the facility. And so that began whenever the government sort of started that, mid-last year, end of last year. So everyone taking rapid antigen tests. And so it got into the facility, and a few residents got sick.
And so yeah, lockdown, we weren’t allowed inside specific areas. So there’s, there were two areas that were sort of interconnected. And they were locked down, all the residents had to stay in their rooms. And then there was a more, there’s a more separate area. And we were able to enter there. But yeah, so we had to put everything for the people who had, the residents who had COVID, on plastic plates, old plastic cutlery, because it would just be thrown out immediately after they eaten it. Because obviously, if you bring it back in, then there’s the chance that we could get COVID, everyone could get sick. So it’s all it was all about.
We had to, we had to basically change our whole entire job. And we’d normally put things on trolleys, and sequentially, you know, get them out. But we have to figure out who could eat by themselves, well, not figure out because we have lists, but you had to change it to who could eat by themselves, who needed assistance. And then we’d change everything around and try and get, you know, everything out in a way that was the safest for everyone. And so that’s you know, also in terms of cleaning because normally we do cleaning, we’d pick up dishes, we do morning and afternoon tea and we give things out for everyone to eat throughout the day. We had to put everything outside the facility doors and get everything organised. And then the personal care workers came out and they got it. Yeah, just in and everything had to be sanitised. A ridiculous amount. It was just yeah, very intense. And obviously, if you get another case, then it continues on. So that happened a couple of times. So you’d have one case, and maybe you’d get to like three or four days in. And so it’s about a week or so locked down. And if you find another one, it extends. And so the residents just, yeah. Locked in their rooms. Yeah, so that’s a bit rough. I think that they’ve changed the policies. I’m not 100% sure. So don’t quote me on that, but that only residents who are affected I believe will be in their rooms and everyone else will be able to move around. Yeah, but yeah, yeah. sounds it
VWT: Sounds taxing.
Alex: Oh, yeah. I mean, and that’s, and it’s hard because, yeah, if any of the workers get sick, like aged care is already chronically understaffed, like, ridiculously understaffed. I feel, yeah, it’s definitely gotten worse since the pandemic, because normally there’s the thing is aged care workers generally tend to work in two different facilities. But then what happened is when they weren’t able to work, you can’t get more people to work. Because one person working where I work, maybe in the morning, and then they’re going to work at the other facility, but you have to choose where you want to go. So that was really hard.
But yeah, I think it’s just like the emotional toll as well of, you know, not being able to see if the residents are doing okay. Like, I’d always be asking like, hey, you know, what’s going on? Like, are there any updates because you’re not able to go and see them. And you’re not able to interact as well with the personal care workers who are inside those facilities because they were in the PPE and they’re in contact with the residents, so everyone is just sequestered away.
Yeah, so but it’s yeah, it’s definitely better now. So yeah, just hoping and we’re doing rapid antigen tests every day for all visitors, staff, everyone. And that’s been really good. Like, we’ve found some positive cases. And luckily, they’ve they’ve not been in, they’ve not been inside, which is great.
VWT: That’s amazing.
Alex: Oh yeah. Like, it’s just I feel, yeah, really super lucky that we’re able to do that. I mean, yeah, it’s just we used to have PCR tests every two weeks as well. But the government stopped funding those at the start of the year. And, yeah, so we’ve, it’s been really hard with supply and demand, getting things. We didn’t have a lot of rapid antigen tests for a while, and then we got a whole bunch. Like it’s just the supply chains have been really hard, like trying to keep up with the demand of what we needed to do to keep everyone safe. Yeah.
VWT: Yeah. I mean, I feel like I should say thank you on behalf of lay people like myself, thank you for everything that you’ve done to try and keep to keep all our treasured elderly people safe. If you don’t mind sharing with me, how much is your hourly rate? How much do you get paid?
Alex: Well, luckily, for me, I am casual. And I’m casual, just because uni, I don’t want to commit to things that I’m I’m not able to commit to and be part time. So I’ve got it on my phone here. So my [hourly] rate, this is without my casual loading is at $23.93. So that is…that’s what it is. And so that is anyone who is, I believe, not casual like me, my casual loading increases my pay to maybe $29, I believe. But yeah, so $23. That’s, and that’s I’m pretty sure been the the steady rate of pay, that I’ve been getting, for the past two years or so. And from what I understand, it’s also the same rate of pay that personal care workers get, which, which, honestly, really frustrates me, it’s really, it’s upsetting.
You know, I’m in a public aged care facility, and it’s, it’s, yeah, it’s $23. It’s almost $24. And there’s so many other different occupations that get paid so much more. And I’m not trying to obviously, you know, compare apples and oranges here, but it’s just, especially with everything that’s been going on, and, you know, governments being like, you know, aged care workers, their frontline workers, they should be treated with respect, it’s really, it’s sort of hard to hear those words, when I see the personal care workers who are so burnt out and who are so tired, getting, you know, 24, almost $24 an hour when the amount of work that people do is absolutely ridiculous, especially being understaffed, so often, like, I could not tell you, if there was a single day that I’ve been working, where we were not understaffed in some, you know, any way shape or form across any of the three areas in the kitchen. You know, it’s just, it’s really difficult. And I know that in some other homes, not where I am particularly, you could do get reimbursed if there’s not enough staff, but it’s not possible for every home to do that. Like, it’s just, it’s unrealistic, I guess, when yeah, if they’re already struggling with funding, then yeah, it’s just difficult.
VWT: I mean, I think your frustration would be shared by so many people, to hear you describe what you go through, to try and keep our family members, our friends, our loved ones safe, and to receive so little in way of remuneration for that. I mean, why do you think…why don’t we have more money going towards the caring professions?
Alex: Um, I think, honestly, it’s I think it’s probably because there’s a lot of minorities who work [in aged care], it’s a ‘woman’s job’, you know, caring, and a lot of the workers, a lot of people that I work with, they they are people who have, you know, come here from overseas, and they’re people who are generally not viewed as integral to our society, which I think is pretty poor form.
Like, we go through constant training and constant updates to make sure that we’re giving the best care that we can but it’s not possible when there’s not enough people. Like people want to do that, you don’t work in personal care if you don’t want to care for people. It’s just, I think it’s the the perception of what care work is and what it means for our society is deeply misunderstood. I think that that is something that is honestly, it’s really heartbreaking, because these are these people here, who are, their families are paying ridiculous amounts of money, let me just say, it’s really expensive, in aged care to, you know, you normally have to sell an asset from the person who’s going in there, generally, to get, and this is in public aged care.
And so you’re spending this money, and you expect your loved one to be taken care of. And this is not by any means the fault of any of the personal care workers, or anything like that, because they’re doing what they can, and I see them doing absolutely everything that they can, being paid the amount of money that they are, and it’s just it’s so tiring, just watching them. And I, you know, I would love to help out and do personal care work, but I’m at uni, and the shifts are eight hours long. So I’m not able to do that. It’s just, it’s not feasible for me, maybe when I finish uni, I could do it for a little while. But again, it’s not. These aren’t, there’s no solutions to it at the moment.
And people why would people want to come and work in aged care, when you’re going to get $23 an hour when you could do something else, literally anything else, and potentially earn more money, doing something like that, like there’s no there’s no incentive to stay, there’s no incentive to begin your journey to do this. And that’s what’s it’s really, it’s frustrating and heartbreaking, because the residents absolutely do not deserve that. They deserve the highest care that you can give them.
So I think that yeah, it’s a real disservice, perceptions of aged care and caring work in any capacity at all, that it’s easy, because it’s not. You watch people as they’re, you know, fading away, as they’re in palliative care. You, you know, you watch some people, you watch people die people that you have known for two years or so like, one of my residents, I knew her husband for two years. And she came in maybe a year, maybe sometime last year, and he passed away, like so you have this connection with this man and his wife, and then he passes away. And you know, it’s, it’s a really, it’s a difficult job. And I think it’s just the appreciation is nice, like words, beautiful, but that’s not, that’s not what’s gonna, you know, make a difference and make our lives easier as people who work in aged care.
VWT: 100%. I think we’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could disagree with that. And one of the things that we’re asking for, as part of the eight Matters That Count is wage justice for aged care workers, for all of the caring professions. And I guess maybe to finish off, it would be great to hear if you have any thoughts on your hopes for the upcoming federal election and anything you might want to say to anyone running the process with regards to wage justice.
Alex: Honestly, just assistance in any way. Like, words are just empty words, that’s not going to do anything. The sector, like I’ve said, I know three or four times now is underfunded, understaffed, but underresourced. It’s just it’s not the way that people should be treated. It’s but it’s, it’s just it’s honestly, it’s, it’s upsetting.
And so what I would hope is that we don’t just get bonuses, like either the $400 or whatever bonus. I got the bonus, but the bonus was dependent on on how many hours you’ve worked. And because I’m in uni, I got maybe $320 and $50 was taxed. One of my friends got the whole full 400 and $100 of that was taxed like it’s okay, cool. It’s great to get these bonuses. But in the end, if people are already working over their capacity, a bonus isn’t going to really mean much if the next pay cycle, they’re just stuck. They’re still getting the same amount of money for an absolutely ridiculous amount of work.
The amount of people who do double shifts, this is working maybe from 7am till 8pm is just, it’s astronomical. It’s almost every day that you see someone doing, you know, a double shift. And I think what I’d want to change is so many things, I think the easiest thing to start with is raising the base rate of how much aged care workers are paid, because you’re going to lose people, you’re going to lose workers and people aren’t going to want to come here and work.
And that’s, that’s as simple as that, there’s no reason that people would logically come and work in an area that is underfunded, and that you’re not going to get the appreciation for this, because people are putting, sometimes their lives on the line. When COVID comes into a facility, people are coming into contact with things like that, and you don’t get any extra benefit for doing something like that. Which, you know, if there’s, there’s really dangerous jobs when you’re, you know, on buildings, doing all that stuff, I don’t know, hammering stuff, doing all that sort of thing, you get paid a good amount of money, because if you fall, you know, that sort of thing. But you know, when it comes to pandemics, and it comes to potential illnesses killing you that there was no assistance in that manner when we were sort of at the frontline, COVID was there, there was the potential that we could get it, there was no sort of extra financial assistance, which I think would be just spectacular for people who really need it.
Because I’m very lucky, being a uni student, I still live at home, I only need to work a couple of shifts a week, because I don’t have that many bills. But there’s obviously people who…this is a full time job. And for most people it is a full time job. And if people are working double shifts all the time, it’s just people getting burnt out. So there needs to be some incentive to get more workers in. And I think money’s the best way to do it. If that’s what this government has taught us is that, yeah, money talks. really.
VWT: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for talking to me, Alex. You’re the best. You’re a legend.
Alex: Nah that’s all right. I had a good time. Sorry I had to go off on tangents a little bit [laughs].
Alex Collins has worked in aged care as a casual kitchen assistant for over two years whilst finishing her Masters of International Development at La Trobe University. She enjoys supplying the residents with great cups of tea and having good laughs with them throughout the day. When she’s not working, she is a student intern at the Humanitarian Advisory Group, where she is completing climate change-related research.
Authorised by Mary Crooks, Victorian Women’s Trust, 200 Alexandra Pde, Fitzroy VIC 3065.
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