E tū union is supporting a global call for better conditions for aged care workers to prevent future worker shortages, as highlighted in a recent OECD report.
The report, 'Who Cares? Attracting and retaining care workers for the elderly, drew attention to the profession's poor pay rates and prospects, the physical and mental risks faced by staff, and lack of training opportunities, all of which affected the length of time workers stay in the profession.
The union said the issue of safe staffing in aged care facilities was a long-standing one in New Zealand, as there were no mandatory staff to resident ratios, while the report claimed that the estimated median tenure of staff across the sector in New Zealand was five years.
An E tū delegate in a North Island aged care facility, who wished to remain anonymous, said Covid-19 had exacerbated the issues of an "already broken system."
"The public would be horrified to know the everyday reality is not as it is depicted in the glossy brochures," she said.
"Reality in my facility is a resident not missing just one shower, but not having a shower for almost three weeks. Reality is your loved one going hungry if there are not enough caregivers to help those who need assistance to eat. If I was a family of a resident, I would be really concerned that staffing levels are simply not safe."
Covid-19 had placed staff under even more pressure, as carers resigned over the lack of PPE or took leave, as they felt their family circumstances posed a risk of introducing the virus into the home, while unsafe staffing levels were not only detrimental to residents, but also had a knock-on effect on the sector as a whole.
"Unless working conditions improve, staff will leave the sector and residents will lose the well-trained, qualified teams who work with them day-to-day to deliver the most personal of care and support services to ensure their overall wellbeing," she added.
E tū director Sam Jones said New Zealand's staffing standards, which were set down in 2005, were out of date and desperately needed to be reviewed to accommodate the complex needs of residents.
"With almost three-quarters of Covid-19 deaths in New Zealand connected to residential aged care facilities, the pandemic has only re-emphasised the urgency of the situation for workers in the sector, as we've seen in examples such as the tragic events at Rosewood in Christchurch," he said.
Addressing staffing levels would also help to combat a potential worker shortage in the future.
"We're calling on the government to set minimum staffing numbers to protect both residents and carers, to ensure we are rebuilding better in the wake of Covid-19," he said.
"This means prioritising community health and revitalising the sector by providing strong development opportunities and pay that reflects the vital work of caring for our elderly."