Kymberly Martin

Disability & the forgotten workers of COVID-19

A University of NSW survey of disability workers revealed the sector has been seriously overlooked in the coronavirus pandemic.

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The disability workforce and COVID-19: initial experiences of the outbreak report showed the very high risks experienced among disability support workers in the early stages of the pandemic.

“The survey picked up extreme anxiety among workers about their safety in the workplace and the safety of their clients,” Dr Natasha Cortis from the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre said.

“Many described working with very little support, and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). They also felt stretched, as they lacked access to additional resources needed to properly support people with disabilities adjust to safe distancing measures.”

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Dr Georgia van Toorn, from UNSW Arts & Social Sciences, said disability workplaces are not prepared for a health crisis of this scale and some have been very slow to respond.

“The physical and mental health and safety of disability workers needs to be prioritised alongside that of health practitioners and other essential workers. Compensation in the form of hazard pay is warranted given the heightened risks for workers, and would help ease financial pressures on an already overworked and under-paid workforce.

“The support the government has put in place for people with disabilities and disability support workers is patchy at best. I don’t know why this service system has been overlooked,” she said.

Health Services Union national secretary Lloyd Williams said in a statement that the severe lack of support for disability support workers must change. “Disability workers are essential workers and provide critical services to the most vulnerable people in our community and deserve the additional support.”

The unions recently filed an application to have a COVID-19 Care Allowance included in the Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services Industry Award 2010.

The Disability Workforce and COVID-19 survey is a part of a larger report titled Working in New Disability Markets: a survey of Australia’s disability workforce, due out in mid-May.

The report has been commissioned by the Health Services Union, the United Workers Union and the Australian Services Union, which represent workers across the disability sector. It will offer insights to the status of the sector: “Because there’s no other large data set that shows how workers themselves experience their work, and the ways disability support work is changing,” Cortis said.

National Disability Services CEO, David Moody, provided F2L with this response to the report:

“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. 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 has sourced several partners to help members with their PPE needs, so that stock is now available to order through our website. We have also been calling for free flu vaccinations for workers and people with disability.

“NDS has been advocating to the government for JobKeeper to be available without restriction to disability support providers, to maximise the ability of the sector to support people with disability during the pandemic needing services, and to ensure the sector is able to stand up again after the emergency period with a workforce that’s ready to go.

“Disability service providers and workers in the sector are committed to ensuring that people with disability are able to get access to the services they need during the pandemic. That’s why they are working in the sector in the first place. They need to be supported by governments to ensure that, whenever the pandemic emergency period ends, the sector is able to continue providing quality, innovative services, and grow the workforce to meet future demand for services,” Moody said.

A Department of Social Services spokesperson told F2L: the Australian Government recognises that health workers, including disability workers, are working in a challenging environment and there are measures to assist NDIS participants and providers during the coronavirus pandemic, including:

  • NDIS plans to be extended by up to 24 months, ensuring continuity of support and increasing capacity of NDIA staff to focus on urgent and required changes to plans.
  • Face to face planning shifted to telephone meetings where possible.
  • Action plan to ensure NDIS participants and their families continue to receive the essential disability supports they need.
  • Proactive outreach to high-risk participants and sharing of data with states and territories to ensure continuity of supports.
  • Financial assistance to providers to support retention of workers including advance payments, 10 per cent coronavirus loading on some supports and changes to cancellation policies.
  • Increased flexibility for participants to use existing NDIS plan funding to purchase low-cost Assistive Technology, including smart devices, to enable continued access to disability supports through telehealth and telepractice.
  • New support items for Supported Independent Living (SIL) providers where a participant has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus.
  • Downloadable Access Request and Supporting Evidence Forms are now available on the NDIS website.
  • Removing visa restrictions on international students working in the sector.
  • Fast-tracking worker screening processes in jurisdictions.
  • Online job matching tools to assist the disability sector to connect with job seekers.
  • Developing new accessible online training programs to assist displaced workers to retrain for critical sectors, such as the care sector.

“The COAG Disability Reform Council meetings of all federal, state and territory disability ministers is working to ensure appropriate safeguards and supports are in place for people with disability, their carers and the disability sector as a whole. At the disability ministers meeting held yesterday, ministers discussed continued support of the disability workforce, in particular, monitoring workforce capacity and actions to be taken if major workforce shortages were to arise. (See following story).

“The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission is providing and disseminating information to disability services providers and their workers in relation to infection control training and the use and supply of PPE to assist in the health and safety of people with disability,” the spokesperson said.

 

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