People with disabilities, their carers and support workers have been largely forgotten in the federal government’s pandemic response. Off the bat, frontline disability support workers 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, “There are widespread perceptions that the disability workforce is dangerously overlooked. Staff are extremely anxious … additional workloads have made it difficult to respond to heightened health and safety needs.”
Eighteen months on and the sector is still at the back of the queue. Earlier this year and without consultation, the federal government pivoted all resources to vaccinating aged care. This is despite the fact that disability residents and staff were supposed to have all been vaccinated within six weeks of the rollout’s commencement in mid-February.
Given the vulnerability of people with disabilities to the virus, fully vaccinated workers are the only way to ensure the safety and wellbeing for clients and their families. A survey by the Australian Services Union in July 2021 revealed that only 20% of support workers had been fully vaccinated. The ASU called on the government at that time to make the Pfizer vaccine available to all disability support workers, in as many locations as possible and provide paid time to access the vaccine.
With less than 37% of the workforce now fully vaccinated, more and more people with disabilities are requesting that their support workers are fully vaccinated. This places significant pressure on a sector facing an already strained workforce.
Once again, the responsibility fell back on providers. In anticipation of a possible mandatory vaccination deadline before year end, many organisations are offering their own vaccination programs with local clinics and financial incentives rather than wait for the Commonwealth’s recently announced in-service programs.
The industry’s peak body, National Disability Services, has also stepped up to the challenge and is to be congratulated on their campaign, Covid Vaccine: Getting it done in Disability.
Why has vaccine rollout been slow?
It wasn’t just the federal government prioritising aged care over disability. There were other issues that slowed the vaccine rollout:
- Vaccine hesitancy as a result of misinformation and poor communications. This issue requires more than a government mandate, it requires clear communication and paid leave support to access the vaccines if on site clinics are not available.
- The operational challenges of implementing a vaccine program: issues that relate to Fair Work, Privacy and Human Rights, shift work making it difficult to take time off to access the vaccine and the capacity of the sector to financially incentivise vaccinations or even access a surge workforce.
- The workforce shortfall. To meet demand, the sector must attract approximately 83,000 more support workers in the next three years and, simultaneously address staff turnover rates of 17 to 25%. At a time when the sector is struggling to recruit, some providers say that potential candidates are reluctant to start work due to concerns that they will be required to vaccinate.
- Massive change fatigue and solvency issues. This sector is in a state of absolute disruption. As a result of the NDIS, participant demand far exceeds the sector’s capacity to supply. The workforce is underpaid and exhausted and the NDIA’s artificial price caps are squeezing the solvency of any providers unable to operate a fast delivery, transactional business model. Many organisations, particularly those in regional areas, face the decision of either withdrawing services or closing their doors.
But there’s a bigger lesson here.
The delayed vaccine rollout has deepened the distrust between the sector and government and further exposed the fundamental fault lines in this sector: the massive workforce shortages, poor working conditions and precarious levels of financial sustainability arising from the blunt instrument that is now called the ‘NDIS Pricing Arrangements and Price Limits’.
However, the immediate challenge for disability providers is to rapidly accelerate vaccine rates and pick up the ball that government dropped months ago.