‘Living with COVID’ looks very different for front-line health workers, who are already exhausted


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Karen Willis, Victoria University and Natasha Smallwood, Monash UniversityWith the Delta variant raging across New South Wales and Victoria, health services are stretched and strained. Behind the scenes is a fearful, anxious and overburdened workforce.

In the next few months, the health workforce will care for many more patients with COVID-19, with case numbers in NSW expected to peak over the next two weeks.

The nation is focused on plans to reopen borders and increase freedoms as soon as there are sufficiently high rates of vaccination. But what does “living with” COVID-19 look like for health professionals?

What have health workers had to deal with so far?

In 2020, we surveyed front-line health-care workers across Australia.

We found the pandemic had taken a considerable toll on the mental health of health-care workers, with significant numbers having symptoms of mental illness.

Alarmingly, 70.9% of our sample of 7,846 reported emotional exhaustion and 40% had moderate to severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Throughout the pandemic, health-care workers have been disproportionately infected – often through exposure to the virus at work.




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We asked health-care workers about the key pressures of working during the pandemic. These were:

  • constant workforce and occupational disruption, including being redeployed or working longer, unpaid hours. Those most affected were more likely to experience poorer mental health
  • worries about being able to provide best care to patients, excluding families from visiting patients, and the emotional toll of caring for patients and their families when people died alone due to visitor restrictions
  • being blamed by, and placing more stress on, co-workers when they were exposed to or infected with COVID-19 and therefore could not be at work
  • worrying about people who were missing out on health care for various medical conditions during the pandemic because they were reluctant to seek health care or due to services being scaled back



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Not surprisingly, we also found many health professionals were contemplating leaving the health workforce.

That was then – what has changed?

None of those issues have been resolved. Now health-care workers are facing even further pressures.

The sheer number of exposure sites, including exposure sites in or around health centres, are a major cause for concern. Exposure to the virus for health-care workers is enormously disruptive and leads to a cycle of COVID-19 testing and being furloughed for 14 days.

The flow-on effects of quarantining are huge. How do you manage, at short or no notice, caring for your children, the impact on your partner, and the rest of the over-stretched workforce having to step up to do your job?

One exposure site can knock out hundreds of workers from the health-care system.

We don’t have an unlimited supply of health-care workers. We also need to staff additional health workplaces, such as COVID-19 testing clinics and vaccine hubs.

This means there’s no slack in the system when we need to suddenly replace workers. Consequently, some health services may need to be reduced.

How can our health system cope?

Health-care workers in our survey also talked about how COVID-19 has emphasised the need to address existing “cracks in the system”.

As one respondent, a psychologist in her 40s, explained:

Things that were not going well, and had been neglected, have been made worse. Rundown buildings, casualised workforces working across multiple hospitals, stretched services covering multiple wards, a culture of “toughing it out” […]

The Australian Medical Association, too, is calling for a system overhaul, rather than a “top-up” funding approach, stating:

Even pre-COVID, emergency departments were full, ambulances ramped, and waiting times for elective surgery too long.

If we are to live with COVID-19, we need a health-care system that can cope with the “normal” pressures of providing health care for 25 million people, intermittent crises, plus respond to both the short and long-term needs of people with COVID-19.

Health-care workers’ mental health is an issue not only for themselves and their families, but for patient care and workforce retention as well: it’s an occupational issue.

Preparing the health-care system to respond to crises such as pandemics, must include supporting health-care workers and protecting them from burnout, overwork, and exhaustion. We risk losing our most valuable asset in the health-care system if we fail to urgently respond to these issues.




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The Conversation


Karen Willis, Professor,Public Health, Victoria University, Victoria University and Natasha Smallwood, Assoc Professor, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

At last, health, aged care and quarantine workers get the right masks to protect against airborne coronavirus


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C Raina MacIntyre, UNSW; Benjamin Veness, CQUniversity Australia, and Michelle Ananda-Rajah, Monash UniversityAlmost a year ago, in July 2020, our calls for the government to urgently upgrade the guidelines to protect health workers from airborne SARS-CoV-2 fell on deaf ears.

The existing guidelines said health providers working around COVID-19 patients should wear a surgical mask. It restricted use of the more protective P2 or N95 masks, which stop airborne particles getting through, to very limited scenarios. These involved “aerosol-generating procedures”, such as inserting a breathing tube. This was expanded slightly in August 2020 but still left most health workers without access to P2/N95 masks.

More than 4,000 Australian health workers were infected by COVID-19 during the Victorian second wave. Health authorities denied the importance of airborne transmission and blamed clinical staff for “poor habits” and “apathy”. Health workers expressed despair and a sense of abandonment, cataloguing the opposition they faced to get adequate protection against COVID-19.

Last week, 15 months after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the Australian guidelines on personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, including masks, were finally revised.

What do the new guidelines say?

The new guidelines expand the range of situations in which P2/N95 masks should be available to staff – essentially anywhere where COVID-19-infected people are expected to be – and remove all references to “aerosol-generating procedures”.

This recognises that breathing, speaking, sneezing and coughing all generate aerosols which can accumulate in indoor spaces, posing a higher risk than “aerosol-generating procedures”.




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“Fit testing” is an annual procedure that should be done for all workers wearing a P2/N95 mask or higher grade respirator, to ensure air can’t leak around the edges.

But this was previously denied to many Australian health workers.

The new guidelines unequivocally state fit-tested P2/N95 masks are required for all staff managing patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. This means health workers can finally receive similar levels of respiratory protection to workers on mining and construction sites.

The new guidelines leave ambiguity around which workplaces are within the scope by stating that health care:

may include hospitals, non-inpatient settings, managed quarantine, residential care facilities, COVID-19 testing clinics, in-home care and other environments where clinical care is provided.

The guidelines also allow employers to decide what comprises a high risk and what doesn’t, allowing more wiggle room to deny workers a P2/N95 mask.

N95 and surgical masks on a table.
N95 masks (top) protect against airborne transmission, while surgical masks (bottom) don’t.
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The guidelines say when a suitable P2/N95 mask can’t be used, a re-usable respirator (powered air purifying respirators, or PAPRs) should be considered.

But the guideline’s claim that a PAPR may not provide any additional protection compared to a “well-sealed” disposable P2/N95 mask, is not accurate. In fact, re-usable respirators such as PAPRs afford a higher level of protection than disposable N95 masks.

The new guidelines should also apply to workers in hotel quarantine – both health care and non-clinical staff. This will help strengthen our biosecurity, as long as they’re interpreted in the most precautionary way.

That means not using the wiggle room that allows workplaces to deem a situation lower risk than it actually is or that their workplace is exempt. When working around a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case, all workers must be provided with a fit-tested P2/N95 mask. Otherwise they are not protected from inhaling SARS-CoV-2 from the air.

In aged care and health care, where cases linked to quarantine breaches can be amplified and re-seeded to the community, the new guidelines go some way towards better protecting our essential first responders and their patients.




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Guidelines miss the mark on ventilation

The guidelines fail to explicitly acknowledge COVID-19 spreads through air but nonetheless recommend the use of airborne precautions for staff.

Airborne particles are usually less than 100 microns in diameter and can accumulate indoors, which means they’re an inhalation risk.

The old guidelines focused on “large droplets”, which were thought to fall quickly to the ground and didn’t pose a risk in breathed air. This was based on debunked theories about airborne versus droplet transmission.

The new guidelines fail to comprehensively address ventilation, which is only mentioned in passing with a reference to separate guidelines for health-care facilities. This may not cover aged care or hotel quarantine.




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We must ensure institutions such as hospitals, hotel quarantine facilities, residential care, schools, businesses and public transport have plans to mitigate the airborne risk of COVID-19 and other pandemic viruses through improved ventilation and air filtration.

Australia could follow Germany, which has invested €500 million (A$787 million) in improving ventilation in indoor spaces.

Meanwhile, Belgium is mandating the use of carbon dioxide monitors in public spaces such as restaurants and gyms so customers can assess whether the ventilation is adequate.

Cleaning shared air would add an additional layer of protection beyond vaccination and mask-wearing. Secondary benefits include decreased transmission of other respiratory viruses and improved productivity due to higher attention and concentration levels.

No updated advice on hand-washing

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now acknowledges exposure to SARS-CoV-2 occurs through “very fine respiratory droplets and aerosol particles” and states the risk of transmission through touching surfaces is “low”.

Yet this is not acknowledged in the latest Australian health-care guidelines.

Australians have been repeatedly reminded to wash or sanitise their hands, wipe down surfaces and stand behind near-useless plexiglass barriers.

The promotion of hand hygiene and cleaning surfaces is not based on science, which shows it is the air we breathe that matters most.

Revised public messaging is needed for Australians to understand shared air is the most important risk for COVID-19.The Conversation

C Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head, Biosecurity Program, Kirby Institute, UNSW; Benjamin Veness, Adjunct Professorial Fellow, CQUniversity Australia, and Michelle Ananda-Rajah, Consultant physician General Medicine & Infectious Diseases, Alfred Health, past MRFF TRIP Fellow, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fired for storming the Capitol? Why most workers aren’t protected for what they do on their own time



The man on the right wearing the Trump hat was identified by his badge as an employee of Navistar Direct Marketing, which fired him.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Elizabeth C. Tippett, University of Oregon

Can you be fired for joining a violent mob that storms the Capitol?

Of course you can.

Among the jarring images of white insurrectionists who broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was a man marching through the building holding a Trump flag with his work ID badge still draped around his neck.

It didn’t take long for internet sleuths to zoom in on the badge and alert his employer, Navistar Direct Marketing, a Maryland direct mail printing company.

The company promptly fired the man and contacted the FBI, issuing a statement that “any employee demonstrating dangerous conduct that endangers the health and safety of others will no longer have an employment opportunity.”

Even though the Capitol Police let all but 14 of the rioters walk away, the FBI and District of Columbia police have begun tracking them down. Other companies have also taken action against employees identified in the many photos from inside the Capitol. Even the CEO of a data analytics firm found himself without a job following his arrest.

Based on my experience as a law professor and lawyer specializing in employment law, I doubt that Navistar management is losing sleep over whether its decision was legally justified.

It’s not even a close case. Non-unionized workers in the United States – about 90% of all workers – are employed at-will. That means you can be terminated at any time, without notice, for any reason. It doesn’t even have to be a good reason. Unless the company has guaranteed your job in writing, or there is a specific law that protects your conduct – such as laws protecting union organizing or whistleblowing – your fate is up to them.

The law is more protective when it comes to unionized workers and government employees. These workers may have the right to be terminated only for cause, and they might get a hearing process prior to being disciplined. Government workers are also protected by the First Amendment, particularly when it comes to free speech in their capacity as citizens rather than speech related to the workplace.

That’s why the teachers and off-duty police officers spotted at the Capitol have only been suspended pending investigations, rather than fired outright. For these workers, their fate may depend on whether they were peacefully participating in the day’s earlier rally – an activity that would be considered protected speech – as opposed to engaging in violence or joining the capitol invasion, which would be unprotected illegal conduct.

Things get murky if these government workers were displaying white supremacist symbols, like a confederate flag, at the rally. Courts have recognized limits on the public speech of police officers to uphold public confidence, community relations and department morale.

A throng of Trump supporters stand in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 6 as one snaps a picture.
A supporter of President Donald Trump appears to take a selfie at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

But as the Brennan Center, a liberal-leaning law and public policy institute, observed in an August 2020 report, “few law enforcement agencies have policies that specifically prohibit affiliating with white supremacist groups.” The absence of such policies could make it harder for departments to later discipline off-duty police officers for their role.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

State lawmakers who participated are a different matter. Because they were elected by the people, they can’t be removed like ordinary employees. That might require a recall election or a state impeachment process.

But for most of the folks who snapped selfies in the Capitol – or ended up in someone else’s – if they don’t get a knock on the door from the FBI, they may soon be getting one from HR.The Conversation

Elizabeth C. Tippett, Associate Professor, School of Law, University of Oregon

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When health workers came up against COVID it laid bare gaps in their training



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Jed Montayre, Western Sydney University and Yenna Salamonson, Western Sydney University

COVID-19 turned 2020 on its head for all healthcare workers, particularly those at the front line of the pandemic response.

Unexpectedly, the need to control the spread of the coronavirus has consumed healthcare systems. The healthcare workforce’s pivotal role in our pandemic response has been in the public spotlight. The experience has exposed knowledge gaps in curriculums, bringing to the fore questions about the education and training of front line healthcare workers.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of including infection control, mental healthcare and ageing and aged care in all educational programs for health professions.

Infection control

All healthcare disciplines are expected to include infection control contents and principles in the curriculum. However, the teaching of this content was not designed to address a pandemic of historic proportions. Nor are healthcare workers specifically taught to apply infection controls in their workplaces with a pandemic in mind.




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Infection control protocol during this pandemic requires all front-line healthcare workers to wear protective personal equipment, observe strict hand hygiene and adhere to contact-tracing measures.

In addition to including the classic “chain of infection” in teaching healthcare, we need to ensure students can apply these concepts in specific clinical settings. For example, aged care homes have a different set of infection control challenges from hospitals. These include potential breaches of isolation and infection containment measures by COVID-positive residents visiting other residents, a lack of dedicated isolation rooms and staff with limited training.




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Infection control goes beyond competence in the use of protective gear and isolation measures. Management skills are needed to ensure everyone follows recommended infection control practices within their organisations.

For example, registered nurses in aged care must oversee and manage staff adherence to infection control protocols with their facility. These workers include students, cooks and cleaners, so they too must have the essential infection control knowledge and training.

Aged care residents smiling as they exercise
Aged care homes that acted decisively to implement measures appropriate for a pandemic protected their residents from COVID-19.
belushi/Shutterstock

Ageing and aged care

Older people are unquestionably at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. To protect them, visits by family and friends are often curtailed, particularly in residential aged care facilities. Not surprisingly, loneliness and social isolation are increasing among older people.




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Psychosocial issues like these underscore the importance of a focus on ageing and aged care in healthcare curriculums. In Australia, pre-pandemic evidence indicated a lack of ageing-related education for health professionals. This was highlighted by the Aged Care Royal Commission recommendation to integrate age-related conditions and aged care into healthcare curriculums as an accreditation requirement.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that healthcare students are well prepared to provide optimal care for our most vulnerable age group.

Mental health

The mental health impacts of COVID-19 have affected all population groups. Preventing further mental health issues is now the main goal.




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However, not all healthcare programs include content that incorporates approaches to psychological distress and a potential mental health crisis. COVID-19 has exposed this gap in the education of healthcare workers who have had to attend to patients’ mental health needs during the pandemic.

Lonely older man looking out of window
The lack of social contacts under COVID-19 restrictions has been challenging for people’s mental health.
Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Education and training are essential as complex challenges can arise when non-expert healthcare workers manage mental health issues. There’s a need to consider the inclusion in healthcare curriculums of mental health education encompassing the lifespan and life transitions – for example, maternal mental health with pregnancy and childbirth during a pandemic.

Building in pandemic preparedness

The emergence of COVID-19 has highlighted the need for healthcare curriculums to include pandemic preparedness.

Preparedness of course includes clinical competence of healthcare workers. However, a successful pandemic response also requires building resilience at a time of change in health systems. Students need to be prepared for changes in health-service delivery such as the use of telehealth and digital platforms.

Access to healthcare must be maintained even in the midst of a pandemic.




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Upholding human rights

COVID-19 has raised ethical and moral issues relating to the rights of every individual to health. The pandemic has exposed inequalities at every level – for example, rationing healthcare resources for older people. It’s vital that healthcare curriculums integrate content on upholding human rights during a pandemic.

Understanding the social determinants of health in a pandemic also helps provide contexts for infection control, care for vulnerable groups and prevention of mental health issues.

Attention to the most vulnerable groups, people and their families who experienced COVID-19 deaths, and an understanding of universal health coverage are fundamental for healthcare students during this pandemic and beyond.The Conversation

Jed Montayre, Senior Lecturer (Nursing), Western Sydney University and Yenna Salamonson, Professor in Nursing, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here’s the proof we need. Many more health workers than we ever thought are catching COVID-19 on the job


Alicia Dennis, University of Melbourne

Yesterday, the Victorian government released much-anticipated figures showing the proportion of the state’s health-care workers who caught COVID-19 at work.

Victoria’s chief medical officer Andrew Wilson said yesterday that 70-80% of health workers testing positive to COVID-19 were infected at work. That’s compared with 22% in the first wave.

That figure, which equates to at least 1,600 people infected in the workplace, is shocking and tragic. This is because occupational exposure of health-care workers to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, represents a failing of hazard control in many workplaces — across multiple locations, in hospital and in aged care.

We also need to acknowledge this problem is fundamentally an occupational health and safety issue rather than simply an infectious disease problem. This means experts in occupational health and safety need to be intrinsically involved in recommendations and guidance to government and employers.

What else did the report find?

The report found infection of health-care workers was greatest in areas where there were many patients with COVID-19 being cared for together (known as “cohorting”), and where health-care workers congregated, such as tea rooms.

Other contributing factors were the increased risk associated with putting on and taking off (donning and doffing) personal protective equipment (PPE), staff moving between health-care facilities, and poor ventilation systems with inadequate air flow.

The report tells us health-care workers in aged care accounted for around two in five infections, and hospital workers around one-third.

However, further details were not provided. These include the actual number of health-care workers infected at work, and a detailed breakdown of the category of health-care worker infected, as well as their age ranges and gender.

We also don’t know the severity of health-care worker infections (number of people who are or have been hospitalised, in ICU, or died).

How big a problem is this?

The number of health-care workers infected with COVID-19 in Victoria has reached 2,799. That makes a seven-day average of 43 new cases each day.

This means that while the state’s total number of new cases continues to decline, health-care worker infections make up around 30% of new cases each day.

Controlling the number of new health-care worker infections is essential, not only for health-care workers but for the sustainability of our health-care system, and to reduce the overall number of cases.




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Rising coronavirus cases among Victorian health workers could threaten our pandemic response


As the total number of health-care worker infections has risen, key groups representing doctors and nurses have called on the government to produce data on the number of health-care workers infected at work and a breakdown of the data by health-care worker type, age, location and severity.

Yesterday the government released its keenly awaited analysis.

What should we do about it?

In light of the report, the Victorian government has established a new health-care worker infection prevention and well-being taskforce.

This is an important step forward and hopefully includes representation from all expert groups, especially occupation health and safety exerts.

Data from earlier in the year, and indeed prior experiences with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), have already given us a blueprint for how to protect health-care workers today.

The blueprint includes implementing a system of hazard control measures (called a hierarchy of control model) in all health-care settings using experts in the field of occupational health and safety, including occupation hygienists.

The government report also outlines plans to develop ventilated and heated marquee-type tents for workers to have their tea breaks in, which is also good news. This recognises the contribution poor air flow makes to the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

The planned introduction of PPE “spotters” in workplaces is also positive but further details are needed to understand exactly what they will do.

This will hopefully reduce staffing pressure in the workplace and ensure correct donning and doffing of PPE.

What about ‘fit testing’ respirators?

The report also included the surprising announcement that the government was going to undertake a fit-testing trial of respirators.

Testing that respirators, such as N95 face masks, fit and that staff are trained to use them are essential parts of workplace safety, in any industry. It is required as part of Australian standard AS 1715.




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PPE unmasked: why health-care workers in Australia are inadequately protected against coronavirus


So, there is no need to trial fit testing. This is clear from experience in other industries where workers are exposed to hazards such as asbestos or dangerous laboratory fumes.

What is needed is immediate implementation of fit testing and training so health-care workers can be assured their masks fit correctly and do not allow the virus in. This is especially important for females, with many reporting the standard respirator size does not fit properly.

The government needs to do more

The government’s report acknowledged the likelihood of aerosol spread as a mechanism for the transmission of SARS-COV-2. So it has engaged the Victorian Health and Human Services Building Authority to conduct a study aimed at investigating aerosols and their spread on surfaces.

We do not have to wait for the results of this research. The government can act now and take the next step and immediately change its guidelines for PPE for health-care workers.




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Is the airborne route a major source of coronavirus transmission?


The Victorian PPE guideline for health-care workers still does not recommend universal PPE designed to protect health workers from aerosols when caring for COVID-19 suspected or positive patients.

The guidelines instead recommend PPE to protect against droplet transmission (such as surgical masks), even in the situation where a person with COVID-19 is severely coughing.

Disappointingly, national guidance still remain unchanged regarding its advice for health-care workers caring for COVID-19 suspected or positive patients. It too does not recommend universal aerosol precaution PPE (including respirators) when health-care workers care for patients with COVID-19.

These guidelines need to be urgently updated to protect health-care workers.

There is also an urgent need for a comprehensive, publicly accessible state and national registry of health-care worker infections that provides regularly updated disaggregated data about health-care worker infections.

This is essential so the magnitude of the problem can continue to be addressed and immediate preventative strategies put in place.

Finally, now the problem of occupational exposure of health-care workers to SARS-CoV-2 has been acknowledged, we must make all these changes immediately.




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The Conversation


Alicia Dennis, Associate Professor MBBS, PhD, MPH, PGDipEcho, FANZCA, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There may not be enough skilled workers in Australia’s pipeline for a post-COVID-19 recovery



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Pi-Shen Seet, Edith Cowan University and Janice Jones, Flinders University

Scott Morrison wants to overhaul the skills workforce to ensure a better post-COVID-19 recovery. But there may not be enough people with the necessary skills to do so. And travel restrictions, which will reduce migration, will only compound the issue.

A Productivity Commission interim report released today found the proportion of people without qualifications at a Certificate 3 level or above decreased from 47.1% in 2009 to 37.5% in 2019. This will not be enough to meet a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) target of 23.6% set for 2020.




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The report also found while the number of higher-level qualifications (diplomas and advanced diplomas) sharply increased between 2009 and 2012, it has since fallen to its 2009 level.

The 2020 target was set out in the 2012 National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development (NASWD), which identified long-term federal and state objectives in skills and workforce development.

The report noted the skills agreement is no longer fit for purpose, and the A$6.1 billion governments spend annually on vocational education and training can be better allocated to improve outcomes.

What the report found

The National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development was intended to significantly lift the skills of the Australian workforce and improve participation in training, especially by students facing disadvantage. Several targets, performance indicators and outcomes were agreed to.

These included to:

  • halve the proportion of Australians aged between 20-64 without qualification at certificate 3 level and below, from 47.1% in 2009 to 23.6% by 2020

  • double the number of advanced diploma and diploma completions nationally from 53,974 to 107,948 in 2020.

The commissioners admit some of the targets agreed to were arbitrary and ambitious.

The report says:

If targets are unattainable, they quickly become irrelevant for policymakers. The NASWD’s performance indicators were reasonable general measures but needed to be linked to specific policies to allow governments to monitor progress.

The NASWD’s targets will not be met.

The commissioners state the failure to meet the targets is not an indication the national agreement has failed overall. This is because the targets only looked at those with formal education.

It noted a large proportion of the workforce aged over 25 are more likely to do informal training to increase skills for their current occupation, as opposed to formal training to get a new job.




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About 85% of workers’ non-formal learning is paid for by employers, but government policies are largely silent about this kind of training.

Noting these caveats, the report identified factors that contributed to the failure to meet the targets. These included:

  1. a lack of uniform commitment and execution to meet the reform directions set as part of the original national agreement. This was meant to improve training accessibility, affordability and depth of skills through a more open and competitive VET market, driven by user choice

  2. the reputational damage of the VET FEE-HELP scheme that facilitated rorting of the system

  3. a reduction in governments’ commitment to a competitive training market. This includes a lack of accessible course information for students and inadequate sector regulation

  4. unclear pathways to jobs through the VET system – for example through lack of proper employment advice through school career advisors.

The fall in VET participation also coincided with an increase in university enrolments. This suggests students were choosing university over VET. VET and traineeship funding also tightened from 2014.

What the report recommends

Treasurer Josh Freydenberg asked the Productivity Commission to undertake the review of the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development in November 2019, before the bushfires and COVID-19 hit the economy.

The request came a few months after former New Zealand skills minister Steven Joyce released a report and recommendations of his review of Australia’s VET system.

The findings of the Productivity Commission’s interim report appear to dovetail well with those of the Joyce review. This recommended the formation of the National Skills Commission, which can facilitate an overarching national and consistent approach to vocational education and training.




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The interim report’s main recommendation is for governments to consider reforms to make the VET system a more efficient, competitive market. This must be driven by informed choices of students and employers, with the flexibility to deliver a broad suite of training options.

The commissioners also advocate for the use of common methods of measurement among states and territories to achieve nationally consistent VET funding and pricing.

For example, one of the most popular VET courses in Australia is the Certificate 3 in individual support — the course you’d study to work in aged or disability care. Standard subsidies for this course vary by as much as A$3,700 across Australia.

The report calls for more submissions and consultation as part of the next phase of the review.

The initial assumption of the commissioners was that the changing nature of work largely driven by new technology would be the main driver of changes to VET requirements.

But given the disruptions to the economy, and learning delivery having moved online, the commissioners note that while their current options and recommendations are unlikely to change in the general sense, COVID-19 is probably driving longer-term changes to the economy.

They say the pandemic may lead to structural changes in the VET sector which will also be relevant to any future agreements between governments.The Conversation

Pi-Shen Seet, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Edith Cowan University and Janice Jones, Associate Professor, College of Business, Government and Law, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The coronavirus risk Australia is not talking about: testing our unlawful migrant workers



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Marie Segrave, Monash University

As Australia starts to emerge from its coronavirus lockdown, authorities are on high alert for any fresh breakouts of the disease.

One of the risks we need to keep an eye on is hard to see: the tens of thousands of unlawful migrants who work here every day without a valid visa.

My research shows Australia’s unlawful migrant workers already face routine exploitation and in some cases, terrible work conditions. But the arrival of COVID-19 presents new and worrying health challenges, for them and the broader Australian population.




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This is why Singapore’s coronavirus cases are growing: a look inside the dismal living conditions of migrant workers


In recent weeks, Singapore has gone from global poster child for tackling coronavirus, to the home of more than 19,000 cases, after infections took off among its migrant workers.

Singapore’s migrant workers live in purpose-built accommodation and are officially known to the government. In Australia, our unlawful migrant workers live under the radar, so are even harder to identify and support.

Unlawful migrant workers in Australia

There is little data about the precise numbers of people working in Australia illegally. The best estimate is still a 2011 report to the Gillard government suggesting there are between 50,000 and 100,000 non-citizens working here without permission.

This group is different from temporary visa holders, who are also facing their own financial struggles during the lockdown.

Unlawful migrants workers come to Australia on valid visas and then breach their visas conditions. This includes those who overstay their visas and those who come on a visa without work rights.

In my 2017 research across NSW and Victoria, I spoke to such people who worked in industries including domestic labour, agriculture, hospitality and commercial cleaning.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of people work in Australia without a valid visa in industries such as fruit picking.
http://www.shutterstock.com

They described physical and verbal abuse, no or low pay, poor accommodation, withholding of passports and threats of being reported to immigration authorities.

The COVID-19 challenge

The arrival of COVID-19 presents new risks for unlawful workers in Australia.

They face destitution if work disappears and new opportunities fail to arrive. A key concern is that unlawful migrants will accept exploitative working conditions, with little or no pay, and no incentive to come forward for help.

In April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told visitors to “return to their home countries” if they cannot support themselves in Australia.

However, this is not a solution for unlawful workers: it is not clear how people would leave or how they would pay for their travel. It is also likely many will be compelled to stay.




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In my research, I spoke with people who had been in the country for a matter of days and people who had been in the country for close to 20 years – undocumented and working. Often they were sending money home to their family in their country of origin, with some setting up new homes and families in Australia.

Leaving is not a straightforward option.

The public health risks

Unlawful workers also present a public health risk for Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only do they tend to live in overcrowded accommodation, they also tend to move around frequently, seeking work and better living conditions.

Critically, unlawful migrant workers are also reluctant to access community support – for any reason – due to fears they may be reported to immigration authorities and then detained and deported. My research found this group will actively avoid any contact with formal service providers from police to health care workers.

Unlawful migrant workers are unlikely to access healthcare services, such as COVID-19 testing, for fear of being reported to immigration authorities.
Loren Elliott/ AAP

This reluctance presents a risk to their health and that of the broader community: if an unlawful migrant has COVID-19 symptoms, they are unlikely to access testing or health care.

As Australia starts to ease some lockdown restrictions and boosts testing for any signs of COVID-19, it is critical all relevant people in the community come forward if they have symptoms.

We need to build a ‘firewall’

Before the global pandemic, there has been growing recognition, at national and international levels, of the need for a firewall between protections for migrant workers and immigration processes.




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A firewall offers dedicated protection for undocumented workers to come forward – to seek health care, or police or other assistance in the context of workplace exploitation – with the clear understanding that their visa status will not be referred on to immigration authorities.

While my research did not find health services reporting unlawful migrants to the Australian Border Force, the role of a firewall is to ensure there is a formal commitment that this will not happen across any community service.

What we need to do now

In the short term, a formal firewall is unlikely because it would require a shift away from the Morrison government’s strong emphasis on border control.

But national and state leaders could send clear reassurances that we want all people to come forward to seek testing and health care workers will not be asking immigration-related questions.

Singapore has seen an increase in coronavirus cases after outbreaks among its migrant workers.
How Hwee Young/ AAP

This then needs to filter down to localised programs. Proactive efforts to reach undocumented individuals and groups is detailed but necessary work and requires trust between parties.

If this message does not get through, we risk a quiet spread of COVID-19 among untested, unlawful residents, who live in close quarters and are often very mobile – and who are unlikely to come forward until they are very unwell.

Singapore’s situation shows what can happen when groups of migrant workers are not prioritised.The Conversation

Marie Segrave, Associate Professor, Criminology, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why closing our borders to foreign workers could see fruit and vegetable prices spike



Dave Hunt/AAP

Michael Rose, Australian National University

One aspect of the COVID-19 crisis that has so far escaped widespread public attention in Australia is its potential impact on our food security.

We haven’t seen supermarket shortages of fruit and vegetables like toilet paper and pasta because, being perishable, they are not easily stockpiled and therefore less prone to demand-side spikes.




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But being perishable also makes them more susceptible to supply-side shocks, such as we’re seeing with higher prices now for the likes of broccoli due to the impact of drought and bushfires.

The major variable in whether the coronavirus crisis will hurt fruit, vegetable and nut supplies (and prices) depends on how they are picked while the nation’s border remains closed to the foreign seasonal workers on which Australian farmers depend.

Foreign muscles, Australian fruit

Rural Australia’s dependence on the muscles of tens of thousands of backpackers and workers on temporary working visas is sometime minimised by official statistics.

More than one-third of peak seasonal jobs on horticultural farms are filled by overseas workers, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

But anyone in direct contact with the industry knows most direct harvest labour in Australia is done by foreigners.

Official statistics about agricultural workers are rubbery. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, for example, can only estimate the total number of workers at between 240,000 and 408,000.

The vagueness is due to three reason. First, the data is based on a single month (in this case August 2016) and picking work is seasonal, with less workers employed in winter. Second, workers move around, so double-counting can occur. Third, overseas workers and contract workers provided by labour hire companies are not included in labour force surveys.

What immigration data tells us, however, is that in 2017-18 about 31,000 backpackers did at least 88 days of farm work to be eligible to extend their visas for a year. (There are no numbers for the number of backpackers working on farms for other reasons.)

A further 8,500 workers from Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste worked on farms for up to six months on visas issued under Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme. This increased to about 12,000 in 2018-19.

Domestic restrictions

The indefinite closure of Australia’s borders to non-resident foreign nationals jeopardises this supply of farm workers.

The question is whether the spike in domestic unemployment will see Australian workers (and other foreign workers) displaced from other sectors flocking to rural areas to take up those jobs.

Possible complications are travel restrictions, with states closing borders and city dwellers being told to stay away from Australia’s country towns, and the Australian government’s income assistance measures.

As migration researcher Henry Sherrell notes of the job seeker allowance being doubled to A$550 a week, “that’s a pretty decent week if you’re on picking piece rates”.




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“In theory, Australians laid off in the many sectors now facing recession could head for the countryside and start picking fruit,” he argues in an article co-authored with Stephen Howes, an economics professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.

In practice, it is just not going to happen. The work is difficult, and farms often geographically isolated. It would take years not months to change the reality that farm work is just not in the choice set of most Australians – who, after all, live in one of the most urbanised and richest countries in the world.

An exemption for seasonal workers

Allowing backpackers and seasonal workers in Australia to extend their visas is an obvious first step. On top of any measures to encourage foreign workers to stay, the longer term may require making an exception to the ban on their entering the country.

The entry of seasonal workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste already requires medical checks before they travel. Exempting those with seasonal work visas from our closed border policy would not be unreasonable. Canada, which runs a similar guest worker program, has already done so.



With Australian help, workers could be tested for COVID-19 before they fly. On arrival here they would be quarantined for 14 days like everyone else.

The government would need to step in and pay for suitable accommodation, catering and medical services. It would also need to ensure arrangements so workers can get home. But there are there a number of benefits to justify the cost.




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It contributes not only to Australia’s food security but also its national interest, maintaining and deepening its bonds with its island neighbours.

If there is a silver lining to the current grim situation, it may be that it could serve to make real the rhetoric that our relationship with the Pacific (and Timor-Leste) is one defined by partnership, in which we help ourselves through helping each other.The Conversation

Michael Rose, Research fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus puts casual workers at risk of homelessness unless they get more support



LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Simone Casey, RMIT University and Liss Ralston, Swinburne University of Technology

Our analysis shows an economic downturn as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic will dramatically increase rental stress for people with insecure or casual work. If the downturn persists this will place people in precarious jobs at higher risk of homelessness.

The scenario we explored is the effect of loss of casual work on people on very low incomes. We identify this at-risk group as those aged between 19 and 30 years, living independently with disposable incomes of A$600 a week from casual work or a combination of casual work and benefits.




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They typically work in cafes, restaurants, catering, events, fast food and retail. These are the jobs most immediately impacted by an economic slowdown. It is estimated one in four Australian workers is casual, although not all are on low incomes.

The infographic below illustrates the extreme rental stress a slowdown will cause the low-income casual workers. We have calculated average rent across the broader Melbourne and Sydney metropolitan areas. The infographic shows the impact on rental stress of losing up to A$300 per week of disposable income. The percentages represent the amount of income taken up by rent, with red indicating the most extreme rental stress.


Source: REIA median rental data (December, 2019), A Guide to Australian Government Payments, authors’ calculations

For example, the top row shows a casual worker in Sydney sharing a two-bedroom flat earning A$604 a week had A$344 disposable income after rent. The final row shows an individual in Sydney with A$326 weekly income after losing work income. Their rent then takes up 80% of their income, leaving them with A$66 a week to live on after rent.

The potential impact of the downturn on the disposable income of people with very low incomes means they will be in extreme rental stress unless they have savings.

So do they have savings?

The federal government has suggested casual workers have savings to tide them over. Our analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data suggests 38.9% of those earning A$600 or less per week have less than A$600 in savings to get them through. Over a quarter of this group are already in debt.

Another 26.6% of low-income casual workers have a month or less for things to get back to normal.

Average savings of people earning A$600 a week.
Source: Income and Housing, Australia, 2017-18 (Australian Bureau of Statistics), Authors’ calculations

These savings will be used up rapidly when average rent in a share house is A$133-220 per week in Melbourne and A$165-260 in Sydney. These rents include outer metropolitan areas, so rental stress in the inner cities will be worse, as our previous analysis showed.




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The downturn will affect a large number of people already on benefits because their income is partly from benefits and partly from earnings. According to data from the Department of Social Services, 41% of Youth Allowance recipients, 28% of NewStart recipients and 36% of Parenting Payment single recipients are working and therefore receive part-rate allowances.

Will the first economic stimulus package help?

For people already receiving benefits the one-off A$750 stimulus payment will help to tide them over for 3-4 weeks’ rent. But to date casual workers have not been included in that stimulus payment (unless they receive Family Tax Benefit).

People who lose their casual work will be able to get the new JobSeeker payment from March 20. It’s the same as the NewStart rate – A$326 per week (including average rent assistance) – so it is clear they will be in immediate rental stress.




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It’s worth noting this rental crisis is compounded because NewStart has not kept pace with rental increases over the last 25 years. NewStart has been increased by CPI only. The chart below shows how wide the gap between Melbourne rent price increases and CPI has become.

Median increase in Melbourne rents and CPI, June 1999 – December 2019.
Source: Rental Report, Department of Health & Human Services (Dec 2019), Consumer Price Index (ABS), Authors’ calculations

So what needs to be done?

The loss of income for casual workers will result in extreme rental stress for people who were already on low incomes. This issue demands urgent attention to prevent a homelessness epidemic. Agencies like the Council for Homeless Persons are already calling for an immediate moratorium on evictions.

Landlords have a responsibility here as well since they benefit from continuity of rentals and the contribution of government policy to their wealth and assets. For example, low-income rents are paid out of a combination of regular earnings, benefit payments and rent assistance. These will now be supplemented because people on low incomes are likely to use the stimulus package to keep up.

The challenge for the government is to provide support to people on very low incomes that will see them through the entire COVID-19 crisis. One solution would be to immediately increase the JobSeeker payment to help people on low incomes ride out the downturn in casual work. Another solution would be to provide replacement income for casual workers affected by the downturn.The Conversation

Simone Casey, Research Associate, Future Social Service Institute, RMIT University and Liss Ralston, Urban Statistician, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.