Updated: Jul 5
As Australia's population ages, the demand for aged care services grows. The need for formal care is rising, yet fewer working-age people can afford it. To address this, the government is exploring ways to make it easier for working-age Australians to provide informal care to their aging parents and partners.
One solution suggested by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was to require employers to offer unpaid extended leave for carers of older Australians. The government has asked the Productivity Commission to examine this proposal. After conducting research, the Commission released a position paper outlining its findings and recommendations.
Most older Australians who require assistance receive informal care, with about half of this care provided by partners, 30% by daughters, and 24% by sons. According to calculations by Deloitte Access Economics, if this informal care were charged, it would cost $78 billion per year. As the number of older Australians in need of care grows, the need for informal care is expected to grow by 23% by 2030, while the number of informal carers will grow by only 16%.
To address this growing need, the Commission examined the possibility of offering extended unpaid carer's leave to employees who have worked for their current employer for at least 12 months. However, they found that this option would do little to close the care gap, help most carers, and keep carers in the workforce. The Commission estimated that only 7,000 to 17,000 employees would use it yearly, less than 0.1% of the workforce.
Many carers do not want unpaid extended leave. Instead, they want workplace flexibility, which offers them income and relief from caring responsibilities. While mandated extended unpaid leave would benefit the older people who would be cared for and help the carers who took it, it would impose costs on employers, including disrupting workplaces, requiring the recruitment of new temporary staff, and leaving employers uncertain about which of their workers would stay.
The Commission recommends that the government ensure that carers are aware of their rights to request flexible work, which will be strengthened under amendments to the Fair Work Act that come into effect in June. These amendments will make it harder for employers to refuse requests for flexible work without a reasonable business ground. The government should also ensure that informal carers get support from the formal sector, with formal carers available to provide care at times and in ways informal carers cannot. Waiting lists for traditional home care packages are still too long, and carers need access to respite care for the older Australians they care for.
Under the amendments, employers will only be permitted to refuse requests for flexible work if they have the following:
discussed the request with the employee
genuinely tried to reach an arrangement
not been able to come to an agreement
considered the consequence to the employee of refusing the request for flexible work, and
reasonable business grounds for refusing the request.
The government should ensure carers know these and other rights through its Carer Gateway. It should also ensure informal carers get support from the formal sector, with formal carers available to provide care at times and in ways informal carers cannot.
Informal care is essential to Australia's aged care system but needs proper support. While offering extended unpaid carer's leave is not the solution, offering carers workplace flexibility and strengthening their rights to request flexible work will be beneficial. Additionally, carers need support from the formal sector, and waiting lists for formal home care packages must be reduced. By working together, we can ensure that Australia's aging population receives the care and support they need.
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