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Survey highlights caregivers' low pay and exploitation: a recent NZNO survey of caregiver pay rates reveals the extent of exploitation, unrealistic job expectations, short-staffing and lack of employer respect these vulnerable workers are subject to.

A news story in last month's Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand (p8) highlighted the shamefully low pay rates caregivers working in the private aged-care sector receive. The information was drawn from an NZNO survey of caregivers, which took place earlier this year and resulted in 533 completed forms from around the country.

This month, we present some of the qualitative data gathered from the survey. Responses have been grouped under a number of headings, including money, respect, treatment by employers, length of service/experience, education, understaffing, and health and safety. NZNO's intention is to publish both the quantitative and qualitative results, and to use this to raise awareness with government and the public about caregivers' appalling pay rates, working conditions and job expectations.

Like the recent campaign for fair pay for nurses and midwives in the public sector, the campaign for a fair deal for caregivers will seek greater funding from government for the aged-care sector, so caregivers can receive a fair wage. With adequate funding, aged-care facilities could employ enough staff, make sure they were trained and pay them a fair wage for the job they do.

Half of all the responses to the qualitative questions were about pay. A Wellington caregiver wrote: "I get immense personal satisfaction making a difference in people's lives but I am frustrated that caring work is so undervalued financially." From Palmerston North, one said: "When I started employment as a caregiver almost 20 years ago, the hourly rate was $11.15 per hour. In that time the rate has only increased to $11.50 per hour. Not even $I! And the level of care is more physically demanding." From Hamilton: "The job of a caregiver is very mentally and physically hard. We deserve to be paid as much as possible. Not student rates. Pak "n Save pays more and their work is not as hard. " The issue of respect was closely related to issues of pay. One Wellington caregiver wrote: "I would invite any MP or the PM to walk for a week in a caregiver's shoes and then say how they feel they should be paid. Carers are lucky that the elderly people appreciate what they do because the government certainly doesn't."

Retention of staff was another theme emerging from the data. From Whangarei, one said: "It isn't an easy job but it is a rewarding job and if they paid a reasonable wage they would get people to stay and not leave." And from Wellington: "Caregivers come and go because of the low pay and the way we get treated by management. It's not fair on the patients because they end up getting neglected. We would like to feel valued."

Caregivers compared their pay rates with what other workers were paid, identifying 270 jobs where pay rates were higher. They ranged from a hospital orderly, to a bar bouncer, a bus driver, mail sorter, teacher aide, petrol station attendant, postie and pizza maker. "Freezing workers get more money for working with dead meat than caregivers do for working with live people!" said one caregiver from Palmerston North. "We are expected to do self training and modules/unit standards and don't get paid for it. They know mostly women with young families will do this work so take advantage of this by paying low wages," said an Auckland caregiver. The caregivers commented on the relationship between the length of their service/experience and their pay rates. One from Christchurch said:

"My starting rate was $8 and now I earn $10.80. I specialise in the dementia unit and being punched, scratched and spat at for the $10.80 an hour is the thing that really sucks. I am still here because I love caring for the elderly with dementia." A caregiver from Dunedin wrote: "I have worked in this job for 25 years and am still on $12.20 an hour. There should be recognition of years of service reflected in hourly rates."

The type of work caregivers did was another theme. One from Christchurch said: "Considering I clean up bodily discharges on a regular basis, I feel a rate of $13.50 would be a fair hourly rate, as a lot of people would be unable to do this sort of work." From Hamilton: "I work with body fluids ... I help prepare deceased residents for family members. I am exposed to sick people on a daily basis. I am a resident's friend, confidante, caregiver. The job also encompasses a lot of personal unpaid time in training etc. I feel that the pay rate does not reflect the range of skills needed to perform my job competently."

Stress was mentioned by a number of respondents. 'Sometimes when there are no registered staff available, caregivers are then appointed to give out medication and treat residents that have had falls. Also, caregivers are assessing residents in one way or another. Caregivers also have to deal with family members and explain things to them," said a caregiver from Auckland. Understaffing caused ongoing stress. "Having to work short all the time is putting undue stress on us as we have enough to do with a full staff quota," said a caregiver from Christchurch. "Because it is a strenuous job, there is always someone off sick. So it is quite common to be called in to work when you're having your well earned days off," an Auckland caregiver said.

The lack of penal rates was another grievance. "We get no compensation for working weekends. We get no compensation for working night shift. We get no compensation for the responsibility some of us take on, eg charge in our area at night or evening shift and dispensing drugs." Others complained of unrealistic expectations around drug administration. "We are responsible for the elderly people's needs and lives. We give medication and insulin injections. Without carers they would not be able to function, "said a Nelson caregiver.

Twenty-seven respondents spoke of the lack of recognition/impact on their pay packets from undertaking education courses. "We work hard, do all the dirty jobs. I've done all the courses but don't receive any extra money," said one from Christchurch. "We are constantly being asked (no pay) to do courses in our own time to better qualify us, so that we can have our site marketed at no advantage to us," said another.
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Title Annotation:Industrial Focus
Author:Manchester, Anne
Publication:Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:1060
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