The frontline disability workforce — undervalued and underpaid

By Fran Connelley
Friday, 20 August, 2021

The frontline disability workforce — undervalued and underpaid

“Disability support workers are the forgotten essential workers in the COVID-19 pandemic, despite their vital role in supporting people with disabilities.”1

The pressures on the disability workforce began long before the pandemic. However, when viewed within the context of a pandemic, these pressures led to unprecedented health and safety risks, anxiety and income insecurity for a workforce already at breaking point. In January 2020, the sector faced a rapidly building ‘perfect storm’ of external pressures: a massive workforce shortfall; the increasing complexity and unpredictability of the NDIS (five different Ministers in eight years); a Royal Commission; a new Quality and Safeguards Commission; followed swiftly by bushfires and floods. Then came a pandemic.

Abandonment and safety fears

Off the bat, frontline disability support workers (DSWs) 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 2341 disability support workers found, “There are widespread perceptions that the disability workforce is dangerously overlooked. Staff are extremely anxious about the situation, and workforce issues and additional workloads have made it difficult to respond to heightened health and safety needs.”2

Job and income insecurity

It was not only health and safety issues that presented serious concerns. The NDIS fundamentally changed the nature of work in the disability sector. As a result of the artificially imposed price limits, long-term sustainability is only achievable with a high volume, transactional service model. Providers are expected to deliver a quality customer (or ‘participant’) experience within the framework of a business model geared towards fast delivery, regardless of the complexity of the client’s disability or the level of challenging behaviours.

Well before the pandemic, job security had become the primary fear of support workers as organisations merged or disappeared. The impact of shorter shifts has also meant that many support workers now work across multiple facilities, juggling multiple employers, in order to earn a decent living wage. In July 2020, a study of 357 DSWs by the University of Melbourne found that 20% of respondents could not pay a bill, their mortgage or rent, or actually went without meals.3

As Michael Chester (head of Service Operations, UnitingCare West) remarked in his interview for my book Workplace Culture & the NDIS, “If the current trend continues, we have the possibility of a new working poor emerging in the ranks of disability providers around the country.”

Extreme workforce fragility

All the data points to extreme workforce fragility. The shift from the traditional block funding model to individualised funding, coupled with the price limits, not only created irregular income for frontline workers, it wiped out any funding for the training so critical for quality services.

Then there’s the workforce shortages. The excessively rapid rollout of the NDIS has increased demand well beyond the sector’s capacity to supply. Given the current pay rates it is unlikely that the sector will attract the 83,000 new workers needed by 20244 while simultaneously eliminating high staff turnover rates of between 17 and 25%.

Keeping the humanity in human services

If current trends continue, we will see the ‘corporatisation’ of disability as big providers get bigger and smaller providers merge or disappear, particularly in complex services that rely on long-term, trusted relationships. The reality is that the NDIS participant is not looking for a transaction. They are simply looking for someone they can trust to deliver a quality, human service. They deserve dignity, support and respect — and so do their support workers.

Frontline quality is contingent upon a culture embedded in values, and we cannot address workplace culture without first addressing working conditions.

In disability, if the frontline employee feels valued and supported, so will the client. This applies equally to aged care and health. Economic drivers will never deliver high-quality outcomes. It’s time we valued our frontline workers. The alternative is not an option.

Fran Connelley is a culture and communications specialist with over 20 years’ experience in the non-profit sector. She runs workshop programs that help organisations build stronger, more supportive workplace cultures.


  1. Kavanagh A, Dimov S, Shields M, McAllister A, Dickinson H & Kavenagh M (2020). Disability support workers: the forgotten workforce in COVID-19, Research Report. Melbourne: The University
  2. Cortis, N. and van Toorn, G. (2020). The disability workforce and COVID-19: initial experiences of the outbreak, Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney.Kavanagh A, Dimov S, Shields M, McAllister A, Dickinson H & Kavenagh M (2020). Disability support workers: the forgotten workforce in COVID-19, Research Report. Melbourne:The University of Melbourne
  3. NDIS National Workforce Plan: 2021–2025, Commonwealth of Australia (DSS) June 2021

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