New Zealand's aged care sector is heading into a perfect storm of unprecedented demand, workforce shortages and a funding system that is outdated and inadequate.
We have more people ageing and living longer than ever before in our history -- and the older we get the more complex are our care needs. Yet, at a time we need more caregivers we're seeing immigration policies that will reduce the ability of employers to recruit and retain much-needed and valued migrant workers.
And, at a time we need more beds we're seeing rest homes forced to close or under the financial strain of the pay equity settlement.
We fought long and hard for an uplift in caregiver wages. We advised the Government of what would happen if the settlement was not fully funded. And it's happening, with more than 100 members of the New Zealand Aged Care Association facing possible closure or restructuring and redundancies in the months ahead.
Those suffering the most impact are the rural, faith and welfare-based, not-for-profit facilities, critical to providing care for old people where options might not otherwise exist.
We're working urgently with the Government on a transitional funding package to support these providers through the next six to 12 months.
Then there's the issue of caregiver shortages. Even with the uplift in caregivers' wages, existing workforce shortages are going to continue. Over the next decade we'll need an extra 1000 caregivers a year to care for up to 20,000 additional residents expected to be living in aged care facilities by 2026.
Currently, around a third of New Zealand's aged care workforce hold some form of work or residence visa. Given the future demand forecasts, this proportion isn't likely to decrease.
As we head into the election, rather than focusing on reducing immigration we need policies that enable our aged residential care sector to recruit and retain migrant caregivers, and have certainty of supply.
The Government's recent immigration changes, including introducing remuneration thresholds as a proxy for skill and a three-year stand-down period for holders of an essential skills visa, do not do that. Trained and committed caregivers will be having to leave New Zealand after three years as well as going through an annual renewal process.
The Aged Care Association welcomes a review of the outdated Australian and New Zealand standard classification of occupations that is in line for a second phase of temporary migration settings, but the review can't come soon enough.
Currently caregivers are classified as occupation level 4 which excludes these skilled and valued workers from the Government's recent changes. However, for pay equity settlement purposes, the Government recognises many caregivers as having NZQA Level 4, equivalent to level 3 in the Australian and New Zealand standard classification of occupations.
We understand immigration policy is premised on a New Zealanders-first approach and that employers must do all they can to employ and train New Zealanders. Our 600 members explore all possible options to employ New Zealanders but there just isn't the pool of Kiwi talent available to do the work.
As an example, at a recent job expo run by the Ministry of Social Development, one Aged Care Association member received 249 queries followed by 138 expressions of interest, but resulting in just one suitable Kiwi being employed.
Another example is the not-for-profit organisation St Andrew's in Auckland, which caters for more than 180 residents in its aged residential care facility. Around 40 of its 90 caregivers are on essentials skills visas and of the remaining 50, only 10 per cent are New Zealand born.
All the rest come from overseas. They are experienced and hugely valuable; some have been with St Andrew's for up to 13 years. And through a lot of effort by St Andrew's and a range of other interventions, some of them have become New Zealand citizens. St Andrew's struggles to bring Kiwis into other lower-skilled roles, all advertised through the Ministry of Social Development. The referral rate is very low and the process often fraught with referrals not replying or not turning up to appointments.
The Government has valued caregivers to the tune of $2 billion with a well-deserved increase in caregiver wages and this workforce includes many migrant workers. Ultimately, the issues facing the sector are broader than immigration and pay equity funding. We are facing an unprecedented demand and we need to take a fresh look at how we manage and deliver care for our vulnerable older people now and into the future.
- Simon Wallace is chief executive of the New Zealand Aged Care Association.