Disability support workers: Follow up findings from the forgotten workforce in COVID-19 - Research Report.
Between May and June 2020, at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, researchers from the University of Melbourne and UNSW Canberra, conducted an online survey of over 300 disability support workers (DSWs) about working during the pandemic.
This report presents the findings of the second survey of disability support workers conducted in September and October 2020.
Our findings from that survey were outlined in the report ‘Disability Support Workers: The Forgotten Workforce in COVID-19’. That report found that many DSWs had not received infection control training and were at risk of contracting and transmitting SARS-CoV-2 because they were providing support to multiple different people across a variety of settings over the course of their week. High levels of financial and psychological stress were also reported. We made 11 recommendations based on the survey findings including: updated guidelines regarding the use of PPE, improvements in training in relation to infection control and use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), prioritisation for testing of DSWs, paid pandemic leave, reductions in worker mobility across settings, and financial and mental health support for DSWs.
The report’s findings directly informed the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability following their special hearing on COVID-19 where Professor Kavanagh was an expert witness. The Commission recommended that DSWs should be a priority group for testing and for access to PPE. They also recognised the importance of paid pandemic leave if workers had to quarantine or self-isolate.
The Australian COVID-19 situation since June 2020
At the time of publication there are very low levels of community transmission across Australia, however in late June 2020 infections in Victoria started to rise as a result of breaches in the quarantine of returned travellers in hotels and delays in contact tracing. The Victorian second wave ran until October 2020 and was predominantly locally acquired. Victoria saw outbreaks in congregate and crowded settings such as aged care, disability group homes, supported residential facilities and high-rise public housing estates, with significant levels of infection among healthcare workers as well as aged-care and DSWs1. We still do not know the exact number of residents and workers who were infected with SARS-CoV-2 nor how those infections were transmitted. In response to the second wave and outbreaks in group homes the Victorian government introduced a number of measures, many of which we recommended based on the first report. This included directly reaching out to disability residential services to ensure they were prepared, restrictions on worker mobility and paid pandemic leave.
Newspaper articles reported the challenges managing outbreaks in group homes in Victoria. Therefore, we conducted a follow up survey to examine issues emerging from the second wave in Victoria. First, we conducted interviews with Chief Executive Officers, Managers, Team Leaders and DSWs who worked in group homes during the second wave in Victoria. Second, we conducted a follow-up survey with DSWs recruited in May to June 2020. This report is focussed on the follow-up survey. A separate report from the interviews will also be published soon.
The second survey
Between September and October 2020, 170 DSWs from around Australia participated in the follow-up survey out of the original 357 DSWs who participated in the first survey. This is a 48% retention rate. The respondents had a similar distribution of age and gender.
We asked participants questions about their work since July 2020 using the same questions as the first survey. This included questions about physical distancing, infection control training, PPE, testing, number of people DSWs supported and the number of settings they worked in, and financial and psychological stress.
We included new questions regarding DSWs’ confidence with infection control, PPE and in supporting a person with disability who had SARS-CoV-2. We also asked questions to ascertain their knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 and actions they took to prevent them transmitting or being infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Findings from this follow up survey reflect the ongoing difficulties faced by DSWs across Australia during the months of September and October 2020. Although PPE was widely distributed and accessible, a number of DSWs were still not being provided basic PPE through their employer or were not wearing masks in their day to day work. Furthermore, DSWs were wanting more training related to PPE. When asked about sources of information, DSWs reported government bodies as being their most trusted source. This reiterates our suggestion that government can be more proactive in targeting DSWs with regards to training and information related to COVID-19.
Findings here also demonstrate that DSWs continue to face mental health challenges and significant personal and workplace burnout. As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve over the coming months globally and locally in Australia, it is imperative that mental health supports are available to DSWs.
Finally, significant findings were reported here in relation to DSWs being recognised as essential workers. A substantial proportion of DSWs continue to feel forgotten by government and the community in relation to their important role in delivering essential services to people with disability.
More work is needed to ensure this workforce is adequately supported in 2021.