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Kristine Bartlett Named Kiwi of the Year

For 2018, the New Zealander of the Year is an aged-care worker. Described as an equal rights champion, Kristine Bartlett was also appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours. What does her award mean for the aged-care industry?

Wages Up

The most obvious change came prior to Bartlett’s New Zealander of the Year win. It’s the reason she received the award: an increase in wages for aged-care workers.

In 2012, Bartlett took responsibility for the pay equity fight, working with the E tū union to bring an Equal Pay Act case against her employer. Their five-year struggle ended with a $2 billion government settlement for around 55,000 care and support workers.

With wages for aged-care workers to rise more than 70 per cent over the next few years, residential care homes’ payrolls will definitely increase. The industry has a 24 per cent churn rate, and filling positions is difficult, but the increased payroll costs will likely be offset by a decrease in the cost of hiring and training new workers. Lower staff turnover will also give residents greater continuity of care, leading to happier customers.

Attract Staff

About a third of aged-care workers are on some form of visa. The business expenses associated with this situation range from attracting overseas workers, to the costs of visa processing. But the new immigration laws also mean that most of these workers can only stay for three years, meaning employers need to hire and train new employees regularly as valued staff members return to their countries of birth.

The realities of New Zealand’s aging population make it unlikely the industry will be able to fill all their staffing with Kiwi citizens and permanent residents. However, Bartlett’s win should still help attract new staff in two ways:

The first is the reality of the pay increase. Prior to this decision, the average hourly wage for aged-care workers was around $16.00 per hour — only slightly above minimum wage. For many workers, including Bartlett, the rate stayed this low despite decades working in the sector. In fact, Bartlett said that she brought the case because of the hardships she saw in her colleagues: workers unable to afford food, bus fare or a doctor’s visit when sick. The new agreement will see entry-level workers receiving $21.50 per hour, and those with qualifications and experience will receive up to $27.00 per hour by 2021. This huge increase will make the sector a far more attractive prospect for Kiwis.

Secondly, Bartlett’s win shows a change in attitude towards aged-care workers. In the past, aged-care workers have spoken of feeling undervalued in their positions, but an aged-care worker winning New Zealander of the Year and appointment to the New Zealand Order of Merit is a sign that attitudes are changing. During the court cases, many families of residents expressed shock at how little staff members were paid, and the awareness brought to the issue has illustrated to New Zealanders exactly what aged-care workers do for the vulnerable in society.

Spotlight on the Industry

At a time when the aged-care industry is more often in the media for failing to meet standards of care, Bartlett’s win brings a spotlight to the sector's positives. Bartlett is kind and well-spoken, and she speaks often of the majority of workers who continued in their minimum wage positions because they loved the work and the people for whom they were caring. With the spotlight already on them, this is a chance for the industry to show the country the good work done by dedicated staff to help the elderly live their final years with dignity and compassion.

As New Zealander of the Year and an aged-care worker of 20 years, Kristine Bartlett is going to bring attention to the whole sector. The industry has an opportunity to put its best foot forward as it steps into the future, bringing focus to the amazing people who work tirelessly to support those at the end of their lives.