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Agency staff working in aged care are exempt from federal government rules preventing work across multiple sites during Victoria’s Covid outbreak.
The Morrison government came under fire earlier this week when it emerged staff who tested positive at two Melbourne aged care homes had worked across multiple sites after rules preventing the practice were relaxed.
A requirement for all staff in privately-run facilities managed by the federal government to declare a primary employer was reintroduced when greater Melbourne was declared a hotspot in May.
But aged care workers placed into private facilities by agencies or labour hire companies remain exempt from the requirement. The exemption was first reported by Crikey.
Annie Butler, the federal secretary for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, said staff hired through agencies made up a significant proportion of the aged care workforce.
“Aged care is just a classic case study for the whole problem of insecure work,” she said. “It happens to be a workforce that we know just happens to be caring for the people who are most vulnerable to Covid.”
The federal health department said single-site workforce arrangements did not apply to agency staff, contractors, or emergency workers engaged to support providers under surge workforce arrangements.
“This is to ensure no facility is left without sufficient or appropriate staff,” the department said.
“Single-site arrangements are part of a suite of infection prevention and control measures. Contractors, emergency workforce and agency staff should ensure they are adhering to all other requirements including PPE use, screening on entry, and notifying facilities of other sites they have worked at.”
Some agencies that provide significant numbers of workers for Victorian aged care facilities are not permitting their staff to work across sites – despite being allowed to.
A HealthX spokesperson said the agency placed staff for a minimum of four weeks full-time and the staff were prevented from working elsewhere during the fixed term.
If staff worked at a facility with Covid-19 cases they had to complete an appropriate period of isolation or quarantine before a subsequent placement, the company said.
HealthX is recording the vaccination status of its workers but could not share the number of staff who had received at least one dose for privacy reasons.
Another leading Melbourne-based nursing agency did not respond to a request for comment but a person familiar with its operations said it was also preventing work across sites and was recording the vaccination status of staff.
It is possible for individual workers to register with multiple agencies.
Butler said she was concerned other agencies would not prevent working across sites and that the increasing “Uberisation” of the workforce – made possible by platforms such as Mable – would make it almost impossible to detect.
Agency staff were relied upon as Covid-19 ravaged certain Victorian aged care facilities in 2020 and the entire permanent workforces had to evacuate. But, in some cases, this led to ill-prepared and inexperienced staff being left in charge of entire facilities with little supervision, an independent review found.
“They had multiple problems, and it was because they weren’t always providing the right number of people with the right level skills,” Butler said.
The union secretary said the federal government had since assembled a surge workforce that could fill that role, but she was concerned the number of nurses occupied with the vaccine rollout and testing could see agency and labour hire staff relied upon once again in a significant outbreak.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, flagged on Friday it could become mandatory for all aged care workers to be vaccinated after the federal government reached an “in-principle disposition” with the states and territories at national cabinet.
“We are leaning heavily into this, make no mistake … to see a move towards mandatory vaccination for aged care workers,” Morrison said.
Sara Blunt, the chair of advocacy group Aged and Community Services Australia, said the vaccination program should have always been mandatory. She urged the government to ensure the decision did not place “unintended additional pressure” on the aged care workforce.
“Even prior to compulsory vaccination of the aged care workforce, governments need to ensure good coverage of vaccination amongst workers and prioritise easy access for better protection of older residents and the wider community.
“This is especially critical in Victoria but should be a priority across the nation.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Agency staff allowed to work across multiple aged care homes during Covid lockdown | Aged care (Australia)