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After her elderly mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Sue Hewson undertook a care worker course so that she could remain living at home, and to help her father.

It included a placement in aged care, a sector she immediately enjoyed and appreciated. So much so, that she quit her job as a bookkeeper to focus on the role.

“I think it was the fact that the elderly people were so appreciative of everything that you did for them, no matter how big or small, so the job satisfaction was huge,” Sue tells the ANMJ, on why she chose to work in the sector.

“I enjoyed caring for them, listening to their stories, and talking with them.”

In 2016, wanting to elevate her skillset, Sue studied to become an Enrolled Nurse.

However, just five years later, overworked, burnt out, and underpaid, she reluctantly decided to leave aged care and pivot into mental health nursing.

“I had residents pleading with me not to leave,” she recalls.

“I felt incredibly guilty that I was doing it, but I knew for my own health, I had to get out.”

Working across various aged care facilities in South Australia for nearly seven years, Sue remembers having only three-morning tea breaks during that whole time. Unpaid overtime, too, was part-and-parcel of the job.

“The workload is immense; it’s just mind-bogglingly immense. I used to start my shift a half-an-hour before I was supposed to because it was impossible to get all the work done.”

While money wasn’t the driving factor for Sue’s exit, she admits feeling short-changed by the historically poor wages across the sector. Conversely, in her new mental health role at a public hospital, she earns almost double what she was paid previously.

“The pay scale [in aged care] is just atrocious. I was getting paid $26.72 an hour to look after very elderly people with complex medical issues and I had to supervise four staff, all for $26.72 per hour. I could have earnt more working at Dan Murphy’s.”

In a bid to trigger reform, Sue was among dozens of nurses and carers who made a submission to the ANMF’s landmark Aged Care Work Value Case, before the Fair Work Commission (FWC), to lift the wages of aged care workers.

In her submission, Sue detailed how she began working in aged care because she wanted to make a difference to residents in their last days, yet unfortunately, her ability to care quickly became compromised.

“Now I feel like a cog in a machine,” she wrote.

“I feel totally taken for granted and undervalued. We are constantly told, not asked, to do more with less – which only affects the residents and staff. Not the organisation.”

“The sad thing is, it’s not even about the money,” Sue added.

“Most people working in aged care would forgo a wage increase if it meant that there could be mandated ratios of nurses to residents. We are desperate for better workplace conditions and care for our residents.”

In March, the FWC announced aged care workers under the Nurses Award 2020, Aged Care Award 2010, and home care workers in aged care covered by the Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services Industry Award 2010, would receive a 15% wage increase, effective from 30 June.

The decision mirrors long overdue reform to fix aged care under the Albanese Government, including legislation mandating registered nurses 24/7 in nursing homes from July. While welcoming the commitment, the ANMF is still lobbying the Government to impose a mechanism on how aged care providers actually use the taxpayer funding, to ensure it goes directly to nurses and care workers, and not into their pockets.

Asked what would entice her to return to the sector, Sue said there would need to be greater transparency and accountability, and recognition of the important role ENs play.

“There needs to be more overhaul of the system,” she says.

“I would like greater transparency of public funds going towards the facilities. I would like to see a more equitable share of the workload and more support from the providers themselves.”

Sue believes there are enough nurses in Australia who want to work in aged care to meet the demands of new reforms, but says the sector needs to be promoted better so that it becomes a sought-after field, not just something nurses move into if they cannot get jobs elsewhere, like the acute sector.

“I think what needs to happen is there needs to be a concerted campaign to show that the skills required to be an aged care nurse are quite challenging, and can be very rewarding. You need to emphasise the positive things about aged care; that it’s nurturing and caring,” she argues.