Australia’s aged care workforce under strain amid international bordure closure, provider warns

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One of the country’s major aged care providers has warned international border restrictions are beginning to cause acute workforce problems, which will only get worse in the next 18 months.

The federal government last month took steps to alleviate the pressure on the aged care workforce, relaxing working-hour rules for student visa holders if they work in the sector during the pandemic.

While new data reveals Australia’s aged care homes are on track to meet Friday’s deadline for mandatory staff vaccination, the supply of aged care workers remains a critical problem, after a royal commission into the sector.

A report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Ceda) last month warned of a looming shortage of at least 110,000 workers in the coming decade, which could increase again to 400,000 by 2050.

In the short term, the looming vaccine mandate has prompted fears that providers without high vaccination rates will take a hit to staffing capacity.

Related: Aged care facing impending shortage of 110,000 workers, report finds

But for providers like RSL Lifecare, which now has 98.3% first-dose coverage across its 28 aged care homes, another issue is now threatening to undermine staffing capacity.

RSL Lifecare’s chief executive Graham Millett said international border restrictions are beginning to hurt the sector’s ability to find staff. Millett predicts that, without change, staffing constraints will become the major issue facing the sector in the next year.

“I know from speaking with my counterparts in other aged care organisations that the biggest risk they’re facing over the next 12 months, and probably 18, is in workforce,” he told Guardian Australia.

“I think there is going to be a tremendous shortage, not just in aged care – probably in healthcare, probably in hospitality, probably in fruit-picking.”

The sector’s peak body, Leading Age Services Australia, says the government’s relaxation of student visa restrictions last month has helped give “much needed relief” from workforce pressures.

But LASA’s chief executive Sean Rooney said workforce problems will persist and that the government needed to pursue “every option that is available” to prevent major shortages.

“The government needs to have in place plans to recommence migration as soon as it is possible to do so in a Covid-safe way – the real issue is what strategies and policies can be pursued to make that happen more quickly,” he said.

“As a result of the pause in migration, we have begun hearing reports from some providers that vacancies are taking long to fill, and that there are fewer suitable candidates.”

Rooney said the latest census of the aged care workforce, conducted in 2020 but released this month, showed the workforce had grown across both residential facilities and community care. But he said recruitment had become “increasingly difficult in recent years”.

Related: Guardian Essential poll: majority of Australians support vaccine mandates

“The latest aged care census data also shows there has been a significant increase in staff turnover,” he said. “Other employee engagement data supplied by BPA Analytics suggests that this is mainly driven by staff facing more pressure – reflecting resourcing constraints across the system.”

Rooney wants to see personal care workers listed on the government’s skilled migration list.

The Ceda report last month recommended the government permanently increase the number of hours international students are allowed to work in aged care, and permanently add aged care to the specified work requirements to extend working holiday visas, while allowing those working in the sector to remain with one employer beyond six months.

The report also called for the consideration of a new essential skills visa to allow the recruitment of personal care workers.

In response to the aged care royal commission, the commonwealth this year announced a $17.7bn aged care package, which aimed to clear the home care waiting list within two years, mandate minimum care time in residential aged care homes, and boost the aged care workforce

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