This report provides analysis of workers’ experiences of delivering disability services and supports in the early stages of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia. Data is drawn from a survey of 2341 disability workers, conducted in March 2020. The survey was designed primarily to help understand the experiences of disability workers, and the challenges they confront in the context of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). It was planned and designed prior to the outbreak of the virus in Australia.
While the pandemic was not anticipated during survey design, the data collection period coincided with the period that social distancing measures were introduced and increased in Australia. As such, many workers provided comments in the survey highlighting the significant issues and challenges they faced in the context of COVID-19, and the need for urgent industrial responses and workforce supports to sustain quality service delivery through the pandemic and recovery phase.
The comments provided by workers highlight the ways that structural features of disability service systems, and the fee-for-service model underlying the NDIS, exacerbate the vulnerabilities of people with disability and the disability workforce, in circumstances of pandemic. Workers pointed to problematic features of disability service systems which whilst pre-dating the health crisis, were converging to generate unprecedented risks in the context of pandemic. These features include the fragmentation of service provision, under-resourcing, lack of management support at the frontline, low pay, poor job security, multiple job holding, high workloads and unpaid work.
- There is an urgent lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) being supplied to staff and clients, and many workers feel their organisation’s safety protocols have been inadequate in the context of COVID-19.
- There are widespread perceptions that the disability workforce is being dangerously overlooked in pandemic response, and many workers are worried about the ongoing impacts of lack of planning in their organisation and for the disability sector as a whole.
- Workers have been particularly worried about day programs and community access activities remaining in operation; group homes remaining open to other workers delivering NDIS services and supports to residents, along with visitors; and disruption to clients’ routines and activities, which has created additional risks to client wellbeing and safety.
- 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.
- Some workers have lost jobs or shifts and are uncertain about the future of their work, and many expressed concerns about their inability to effectively self-isolate, and the financial impacts of doing so.