Disability workers feel their employer’s safety protocols have been inadequate to protect them against COVID-19 and that the sector is being “dangerously overlooked” in the pandemic response.

Natasha Cortis

The findings are contained in a report by researchers from the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre who surveyed 2,341 disability workers in March.

They included workers in a range of disability service settings, as well as those delivering home care, community access and day programs, and advocacy and mental and allied health.

Researcher Natasha Cortis says the report highlights how pre-existing structural problems with the NDIS have exacerbated the vulnerability of disability services in a pandemic.

“For example, the way working time is organised, many staff have to work across locations or employers in order to earn a living wage,” she told Government News.

“This raises risks of spreading the virus, or any infection. 

“High use of casuals means staff without sick leave may find it difficult to self-isolate.

” Workers are also stretched for time on their shifts and thinly resourced in terms of staff numbers, so didn’t feel they have resources to do the additional tasks needed to support people with disability to adjust to social distancing arrangements”.      

Sector in need of more support

It found workers were concerned about a lack of planning and were dealing with an urgent shortage of PPE for staff and clients.

One respondent compared going to work to a game of Russian roulette.

“Since the arrival of COVID19 … every time I head to work it feels like Russian Roulette,” the worker said.

“Knowing that there are not guidelines re an outbreak of the disease in the houses, and knowing how vulnerable some of the clients and staff are is terrifying”.

“Every time I go to work it feels like Russian Roulette”

Disability worker

There were also concerns about continuing day programs and community access activities, as well as group homes remaining open.

Respondents also worried about additional workloads or potential loss of jobs.

“Staff are not allowed to come to work if they feel slightly unwell, so we are shorter still,” one respondent said.

“It is putting even more pressure on the same few staffing group.”

‘Massive’ increase in risk

Dr Cortis said the findings highlighted that decent pay and working conditions were essential for an effective response to a pandemic .

“Longer term, the way work is organised needs rethinking so that staff don’t have to be so thinly spread across sites and employers in order to make a living, and so that more staff have access to sick leave so can feel secure when they self-isolate,” she said.

Unions representing disability workers, who commissioned the report, seized on it to call for more support and certainty for the sector.

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

UWU National Director Demi Pnevmatikos  said the fee-for service NDIS model had left workers feeling underequipped and overlooked.

“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,” he said.

ASU national secretary Robert Potter said NDIS workers were at the front line of the national COVID-19 response and were unable to work from home or shelter in place.

“This threat of COVID-19 is real for them. Many NDIS workers are feeling incredibly anxious about the risk of COVID-19 to themselves, their families, their colleagues and importantly the people that they support,” he said.

It comes as the Fair Work Commission on Monday began hearing an application by unions to pay a temporary COVID-19 allowance to disability workers.

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