The disability workforce is essential and must be maintained.

by Phil Hayes-Brown, CEO                                    

As we all come to grips with the COVID-19 crisis, I wanted to shine a light on, and recognise, the unique impacts that the virus is having on the disability workforce who do such important, challenging and essential work for some of the most vulnerable in our community. These efforts are made even more remarkable by the fact that the work of disability staff has been so undervalued for so long. As the CEO of a disability service provider, and a parent who trusts this workforce with my own child who has an intellectual disability and is non-verbal, I know this first-hand.

To understand how deep this impact is on the disability sector workforce, we need to go back to before the NDIS was introduced and remember how huge that massive reform change was for disability workers.

Before the NDIS, our frontline staff were doing amazing things, often above and beyond the bounds of normal service hours to help with a whole range of out of scope issues to allow our clients and their families to function and thrive. I was relatively new to the sector when I started as CEO of Wallara in 2010 and I remember being stunned and in awe at how passionate and caring the staff were, and how it was truly a mission for them, often at a significant personal cost as they struggled at times with their own work/life balance.

Since its implementation, the NDIS has many upsides but for the workforce it has largely meant a total culture shift. Instead of just doing whatever they could to help with the parameters of their employment, the new NDIS environment introduced the concept of billable services. If a support to a person with a different ability wasn’t billable (ie. there was no line item on the huge and often changing NDIS price guide), then every provider was forced to consider how they would fund it, and collectively we spent hundreds of hours, and many months and years helping our workforce to adjust to the NDIS.

Before the NDIS, providers were also funded – and therefore the workforce was paid – regardless of daily attendance. If a client didn’t turn up for a day or two to their support agency, possibly for family reasons or if they were unwell, then it didn’t matter. The workforce was secure and funded and they could adapt and we used that time for training.

However, under the NDIS, attendance by clients became critical. If clients don’t turn up then there is no one to bill. A huge amount of time went into explaining to families how we needed them to give providers at least two days’ notice of non-attendance and we had no choice but to bill them if they did not because our workforce had to be maintained for when they did want to attend. This often caused issues for our staff, clients and their families.

Together these events constituted a massive change for our workforce.

Now the COVID-19 virus is causing many families to feel anxious and some are choosing to keep their family members at home. That’s an entirely understandable choice. But it has a huge impact on providers and the workforce, because no attendance means no income for providers, and that all flows through to the workforce who are, rightly, feeling anxious about their job security as well as the risk of infection.

As the Government considers how best to support essential services through this highly challenging time, let’s make sure the disability sector workforce is protected. Because they are the front-line team that care for our most vulnerable. They are critical and exactly why a family trusts a disability service to care for their family member and trust is the most important thing of all.

For these reasons, I am reminded of the following quote from Virgin CEO Richard Branson who said:

 “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” 

Thank you to all the staff at Wallara Australia for what you do, particularly during these incredibly challenging times.


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