Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the disability workforce
Little data are available on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the disability workforce; the results presented here should therefore be interpreted with caution.
Turnover rate of casual staff
Initial findings show a change in the turnover rate of casual workers: having sat between 6% and 11% between 2016 and 2019, the rate rose sharply to 22% in June 2020 (NDS 2020). The authors of the NDS (2020) report argue that this sudden change might have been prompted by uncertain employment conditions arising from the economic impacts of the pandemic. As the National Disability Service’s Workforce Census Survey (which surveyed a group of registered providers) focused on the ‘within firm’ turnover in the casual workforce, the results may differ from numbers reported elsewhere.
Based on analysis of 2020 NDIS claims, and de-identified 2016–2018 Australian Taxation Office data, latest figures from the NDIS Workforce Plan are that the NDIS loses between 17–25% of its workforce (both permanent and casual) to churn every year (DSS 2021).
Use of international students
The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the use of international students as casual disability workers. To help boost frontline health efforts to tackle COVID-19, in April 2020, the Australian Government allowed international students studying relevant medical courses to be exempt from the 40-hour per fortnight work limit, if working in support of pandemic health efforts and at the direction of the relevant health authority.
Before this policy was enacted, almost 80% of disability facilities that employed international students did so for 20 hours or fewer a fortnight. However, after the change, 16% of those respondents reported that their students worked an additional 30 hours per fortnight, and a further 1 in 6 students for an additional 20 hours per fortnight (NDS 2020).
Workload and safety
Some studies in the early stage of the pandemic noted that the pandemic was associated with increased workloads and unsafe working condition of disability workers. A University of New South Wales study surveyed 2,341 disability support workers during March 2020. One of the findings was a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) available to disability support workers, and these workers were worried about not only the risk of disease infection this posed but also the additional workloads at the start of the pandemic (Cortis & van Toorn 2020a).
The University of Melbourne conducted an online survey during May and June of 357 disability support workers. Ninety per cent of the disability workforce surveyed were unable to practise physical distancing at work, 25% had had no PPE training and close to 70% wanted more training (Kavanagh et al. 2020).
Government measures to cope with the impact of COVID-19 on the disability workforce
Australian Government measures include:
- providing, since the start of the pandemic, 328,590 masks to 394 NDIS providers and self‑managed NDIS participants (as of April 2021)
- allowing NDIS providers, during 2020, to claim the cost of PPE directly from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) when they provided support in declared hot spots
- enabling 80,600 workers in the disability sector nationally to complete the Department of Health’s COVID-19 infection control training (DSS 2021)
- giving more than $666 million in advance payments to more than 5,000 NDIS providers to provide financial support (Hunt 2020)
- introducing a $1,500 Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment for people who cannot earn an income because they must self-isolate, quarantine or care for someone with COVID-19 (Services Australia 2020).
For more information on the Australian welfare workforce, see:
For more information on the impact of COVID-19 on the Australian aged care and disability workforces, see:
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