Disability support workers have been described as the forgotten essential workers in the COVID-19 pandemic, but pressures on the disability workforce began long before the pandemic, writes Fran Connelley.
When viewed within the context of a pandemic, these pressures led to unprecedented health and safety risks, anxiety and income insecurity for a workforce already at breaking point.
In January 2020, the sector faced a rapidly building ‘perfect storm’ of external pressures: a massive workforce shortfall, the increasing complexity and unpredictability of the NDIS with five different Ministers in eight years, a Royal Commission, a new Quality & Safeguards Commission, followed swiftly by bushfires and floods. Then came a pandemic.
Abandonment and safety fears
Off the bat, frontline disability support workers (DSWs) were not granted essential worker status. Providers were told to source their own PPE and scrambled to adequately keep their clients and staff safe in the early part of 2020.
In April 2020, a study of 2,341 disability support workers found widespread perceptions that the disability workforce is dangerously overlooked.
“Staff are extremely anxious about the situation, and workforce issues and additional workloads have made it difficult to respond to heightened health and safety needs,” the paper prepared for the unions representing DSWs said.
Job and income insecurity
It was not only the health and safety issues that presented serious concerns. The NDIS fundamentally changed the nature of work in the disability sector. As a result of the artificially imposed price limits, long term sustainability is only achievable with a high volume, transactional service model.
Providers are expected to deliver a quality customer (or ‘participant’) experience within the framework of a business model geared towards fast delivery, regardless of the complexity of the client’s disability or the level of challenging behaviours.
Well before the pandemic, job security had become the primary fear of support workers as organisations merged or disappeared. The impact of shorter shifts has also meant that many support workers now work across multiple facilities, juggling multiple employers, in order to earn a decent living wage.
A University of Melbourne study, which looked at 357 DSWs, found that 20 per cent of respondents could not pay a bill, their mortgage or rent and even went without meals.
In an interview for my book, Michael Chester, head of Service Operations at UnitingCare remarked that if the current trend continues, “we have the possibility of a new working poor emerging in the ranks of disability providers around the country.”
Extreme Workforce fragility
All the data points to extreme workforce fragility. The shift from the traditional block funding model to individualised funding, coupled with the price limits not only created irregular income for frontline workers, it wiped out any funding for the training so critical for quality services.
Then there’s the workforce shortages. The excessively rapid roll-out of the NDIS has increased demand well in beyond the sector’s capacity to supply. Given the current pay rates it is unlikely that the sector will attract the 83,000 new workers needed by 20244 while simultaneously eliminating high staff turnover rates of between 17-25 per cent.
Keeping the humanity in human services
If current trends continue, we will see the ‘corporatisation’ of disability as big providers get bigger and smaller providers merge or disappear, particularly in complex services that rely on long term, trusted relationships.
The reality is that the NDIS participant is not looking for a transaction. They are simply looking for someone they can trust to deliver a quality, human service. They deserve dignity, support and respect – and so do their support workers.
Frontline quality is contingent upon a culture embedded in values, and we cannot address workplace culture without first addressing working conditions.
In disability, if the frontline employee feels valued and supported, so will your client. This applies equally to aged care and health. Economic drivers will never deliver high quality outcomes. It’s time we valued our frontline workers. The alternative is not an option.
Fran Connelley is a culture and communications specialist with over 20 year’s experience in the non-profit sector. She is the author of Workplace Culture & the NDIS and How to Thrive Under the NDIS.
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