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Disability support workers 'underequipped and overlooked' during COVID-19

5 May 2020 at 6:07 pm
Luke Michael
The disability workforce feels it has been disregarded in Australia's pandemic response 

Luke Michael | 5 May 2020 at 6:07 pm


Disability support workers 'underequipped and overlooked' during COVID-19
5 May 2020 at 6:07 pm

The disability workforce feels it has been disregarded in Australia’s pandemic response 

There is an urgent lack of personal protective equipment available for disability workers and the people they support, a new report warns.

Researchers at UNSW Sydney spoke to 2,341 disability workers about their experiences during the COVID-19 outbreak, and found that many felt anxious and unsafe while working.   

Workers said pre-existing issues in the disability service system were converging to cause unprecedented risks throughout the pandemic. 

These issues include fragmented service provision, under-resourcing, lack of frontline management support, high workloads and unpaid work.

The report notes there is not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) being supplied to staff and people with disability, and many workers feel their organisation’s safety protocols have been inadequate during the crisis.   

The disability workforce also expressed that it felt “dangerously overlooked” in the pandemic response, with many workers fearful about the future of their work and their inability to effectively self-isolate.    

The research was commissioned by Health Services Union (HSU), United Workers Union (UWU) and Australian Services Union (ASU), which have used the report to call for greater support for workers.

“There has rightly been emphasis on the impact of COVID-19 on health sector workers generally, but [there is] a severe lack of attention and support for disability support workers, and this must change,” HSU national secretary Lloyd Williams said. 

“Disability workers are essential workers. They provide critical services to the most vulnerable people in our community and deserve the additional support.”

UWU national director Demi Pnevmatikos said the report exposed fundamental flaws in the disability services system and the fee-for-service model under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

“It has left workers feeling dangerously underequipped and overlooked, which in turn exacerbates the vulnerabilities of people with disability and the disability workforce at the same time,” Pnevmatikos said.

“The key findings including lack of PPE, concerns around safety protocols and risks, and workload issues, must spur action to assist this vital workforce during the coronavirus crisis. 

HSU, UWU and ASU recently filed with the Fair Work Commission for a COVID-19 Care Allowance to be inserted into the sector’s relevant industry award.

This would reward disability support workers for their essential work and increased responsibilities when supporting a person with a disability who may have contracted the virus, including using PPE and performing enhanced hygiene procedures.

Workers also expressed concerns with day programs and community access activities still running, group homes remaining open to other workers delivering NDIS services and visitors, as well as the disruption to people with disabilities’ routines and activities.

David Moody, the CEO of peak industry body National Disability Services, told Pro Bono News that workers did not feel protected during the crisis. 

“Many of our members have advised us that disability support workers have been feeling anxious about the prospect of supporting someone who could have COVID-19,” Moody said. 

“Our members are also still reporting difficulties in sourcing PPE from the national stockpile, particularly smaller and medium-sized disability service providers.”

In response to these concerns, NDS is working with several partners to help members with their PPE needs, with stock now available to order through their website.

Moody said he regretted that some workers lost shifts because of COVID-19 when, in doing the safe thing, providers had to cease some services or change the way they operated.

He called for more government support for the sector. 

“NDS has been advocating to the government for JobKeeper to be available without restriction to disability support providers,” he said. 

“To maximise the ability of the sector to support people with disability during the pandemic who need services, and to ensure the sector is able to stand up again after the emergency period with a workforce that’s ready to go.”   

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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