COVID-19 leaves community sector ‘approaching crisis point’
18 September 2020 at 10:10 am
Workers in the community sector have reported feeling “exhausted and burned out”
Community sector leaders warn that organisations will not be able to cope with surging COVID-fueled demand and looming income support cuts, as a new survey lays bare the pandemic’s devastating impact on the sector.
A survey report developed in partnership between the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the COSS network, Community Sector Banking, and the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre, said more than a third (36 per cent) of organisations have seen their financial position worsen throughout the crisis.
Researchers surveyed 744 Australian community sector workers in July, uncovering the ways the sector has responded and adapted to the major health, social and economic consequences of coronavirus.
More than three quarters (77 per cent) of respondents experienced changes in clientele, issues or needs due to the pandemic, while three in five workers (61 per cent) noted the overall level of demand for services had increased since March.
Overall, half of all workers (54 per cent) have seen increases in the numbers of clients, but this was most pronounced in migrant and multicultural services, where 86 per cent of respondents reported an increase.
ACOSS is concerned by the dual effect of looming cuts to the Coronavirus Supplement, and uncertainty over more than $500 million in government funding that research shows could put 12,000 community service jobs at risk.
CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said community services were vital at all times but especially during times of crisis like now.
“The community sector is fast approaching crisis point as we see the anticipated collision of cuts to income support, worsening financial pressure and an end to government funding for equal pay,” Goldie said.
“Community sector workers are clear that more adequate income support payments are making a big difference for people’s ability to meet basic needs, such as buying winter clothes for their kids, replacing broken white goods and repairing cars.
“Service workers are fearful of what the impending cuts at the end of the month and at Christmas will mean for people and the demand it will place on the community sector.”
Goldie said the community sector was doing all it could to help but would not be able to cope with the level of need if social security was not fixed for people affected by the pandemic.
She said organisations were also in deep trouble if the Commonwealth fails to renew the $576.5 million funding deal – set to cease in July 2021 – that was introduced to address the gendered undervaluation of work in the female-dominated sector.
The survey found that 70 per cent of organisational leaders believe the loss of funding would cause financial pressure, while more than half (55 per cent) admitted they would have to reduce staff hours and service provision if the deal was not renewed.
Goldie said the end of JobKeeper was another challenge for the sector, with the report stating a fifth (21 per cent) of organisations will need to cut jobs when this support ceases.
“Unless the federal government steps in to provide additional financial support for the community sector, as JobKeeper winds down services will need to cut staff hours, jobs, and services, at a time when there is more need than ever,” she said.
“Despite this, the federal government has not committed to extending vital funding for the community sector that allows the predominantly female workforce to receive equal pay for their crucial work, helping those most in need.”
The report outlined the impacts of the crisis on frontline workers, with 96 per cent of respondents reporting that their organisations shifted at least part of their service from face-to-face delivery to other modes.
One respondent explained how these changes were playing out in co-workers’ lives.
“I see colleagues who are exhausted and burned out, they have had to juggle work, home schooling, closed daycares, ageing parents, adapt to major changes in their work, home and personal lives,” they said.
“All the while having the vulnerable in the community lean heavily on them for support, information and assistance.”
Another respondent said the crisis was causing high levels of mental distress.
“[It’s been] enormously stressful as a worker, trying to manage new ways of working, additional workload and trying to balance family responsibilities, working across two organisations that had different responses, learning new programs, systems and the technological challenges,” they said.
“I am still recovering from the stress.”