Many of those with a disability that affects their immune system or respiratory capacity have decided to suspend their support and therapy packages to keep themselves safe. That means workers delivering things like physiotherapy and social programs, as opposed to essential services like helping people turn over in bed and shower, are finding themselves with fewer shifts, disability advocates say.
Some families have also decided to take on personal care responsibilities for their loved ones.
“I’m one of the lucky ones in that I haven’t lost shifts,” Ms Warne-Smith said. “I have dozens of friends who have already lost work because the people they work with are just too immune-compromised.”
The Australian Council of Social Services, Australian Services Union, peak industry body National Disability Services, Health Services Union and the United Workers Union have called for government support for service providers to help keep staff on the books throughout the crisis.
Otherwise, National Disability Services chief executive David Moody says, there is a risk “thousands of workers” will leave an industry that already struggles to attract and retain staff.
Unions and industry also want casuals, who make up 40 per cent of the sector’s 90,000 workers, to be paid if they have to self-isolate. Without the payments, Natalie Lang from the Australian Services Union fears workers will “not exercise the level of caution we would want to see, or otherwise face poverty”.
Greens disability spokesman Jordon Steele-John believes the government should go further and create a reserve workforce to replace workers performing essential services for their clients if they get sick.
“There are many who are at risk across the entire Australian community who require critical support, essential support to do things like turn over in bed, go and have a shower, basic functions you can’t go without,” Senator Steele-John said. “I’m extremely concerned that we are on the verge of a profound worker shortage across the entire care sector.”
The sector also wants the government to distribute more protective equipment like masks, more funding for service providers to stay open, and choice for NDIS participants on how to spend their money.
Hireup, a platform that matches people with a disability and care workers under the NDIS, has announced a support fund for its workforce, but has not yet said how much money will be available.
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The government has previously said it is working on measures to support workers in all industries laid off as a result of coronavirus.
And the Council of Australian Governments Disability Reform Council, which met earlier this week, resolved to put plans “in place to respond to any workforce shortages that may arise as a result of COVID-19”.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.