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15 February 2022


SUBJECTS: Disability workers roundtable; people with disability; disability workers and carers call for urgent action on COVID support.

Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. My name is Michelle O'Neill, I'm the president of the ACTU and we're here for a very important reason. We're joined today by people with disability, advocates, workers who work in the disability sector, service providers and the Shadow Minister for the NDIS. And we're here because there is a crisis in the disability sector. And this is not a crisis that is of the making of COVID. This was a crisis that was in place pre-COVID. But what we have seen with the onset of the pandemic and now with the Omicron wave, is that people with disability and the people who work with them and care for them and their loved ones have been abandoned by this Government. We have an urgent crisis in terms of not enough PPE, not enough rapid antigen tests and not a workforce that's available to surge, to meet the needs when in fact workers are falling ill or needing to isolate. So that means people with disability are left without the care and support they need to stay safe. This is an issue of people's lives. People with disability have been in the ‘too hard’ basket. It's been like a blind eye turned by the Morrison Government to what is the acute needs of people who need care and safety. So what we want to make sure today is that you hear directly from people with disability themselves about the reality of this virus, what it's meant for them to not have the support workers and care they need, to have people missing because there hasn't been a surge workforce available, to not have access to the PPE and rapid antigen tests that are necessary and to not have the things in place, really a plan from the Federal Government, to deliver to keep people safe. And of course, if we cannot keep people with disability safe and the workers that care for them and have the support needed for the sector, then it just shows the failure of this Government to meet the needs of people who most need our support. The other thing I would say is that we wrote to the Prime Minister, saying that we were going to be here in Canberra today, that we wanted him to meet directly with people with disability, the workers who care for them and the service providers, to hear firsthand the acute crisis that is happening in this sector. We have not even had a reply from the Prime Minister to that correspondence. So here in Canberra, to tell the real story, you are firstly going to hear from Sam. Thank you, Sam.

SAM CONNOR, PEOPLE WITH DISABILITY: Hi, Sam Connor from People with Disability Australia. This is Nicole Lee, and we're also joined by Sharon and Shaun, who are from Canberra. So, I'm here not just as the President of People with Disability Australia, but also as a person with a disability who is at risk of COVID. Nicole and myself have flown here to meet with Prime Minister, and unfortunately, he’s not available to meet. We're meeting with Anne Ruston this afternoon. But as Michelle said, the issues that we are facing are enormous and we have been left behind in the pandemic, so the people who are the most at risk have been left behind. Nicole has spent about the last six months in and out of hospital in cancer wards, in COVID, you know, COVID filled hospital in Victoria and has not been safe. Getting on a plane for me from Western Australia was a terrifying thing. I'm flying to Sydney after this. Also terrifying. Canberra has been relatively safe over the last few months, this is the most vaccinated state in the country, but it's yet it's not safe, as we've seen from people coming in from other parts of the state over the last couple of weeks and potentially bringing COVID to this this state. We don't have enough workforce. 80 per cent of the workforce for some people are down. There are people who are carers who are struggling. We don't have PPE. We shouldn't have to sacrifice our NDIS funding and make a decision between having a shower or having a RAT test. It's ridiculous. We need to make sure that we've got equitable access to PCR testing and that we are safe from COVID. This cohort is the most vulnerable, clinically vulnerable, and vulnerable because we receive care. We need to make sure that our workforce is secure and that gaps are covered in terms of thin markets and that we have what we need to keep us safe. Thank you.

MOLLY SAUNDERS, ADVOCACY FOR INCLUSION: Hi, I'm Molly Saunders from Advocacy for Inclusion, I'm a policy officer there, and I'm also someone with lived experience of psychosocial disability. So, as we just heard, obviously COVID-19 has really uniquely impacted people with disability, and our current prevention and response mechanisms are completely inadequate. The minority people, even within the community of people with disability, are being left behind. Eighty percent of people in the criminal justice system are people with disability. Yet none of the correctional services staff need to have mandated vaccine requirements. COVID-19 has been a breeding ground for domestic violence and coercive control, and we have seen the NDIS as a primary sort of intervention point for supporting people with disability, but only 36 percent of women with disability, only 36 percent of participants of the NDIS are women. And so, if we're using and relying on the NDIS, we are overlooking a significant portion of women with disability and we are ignoring their needs and their support. In addition to that, we are underpaying people who are on the DSP, and 40 percent of people on JobKeeper also have a disability, and they do not have enough money to make it through the fortnight. If we want to support women with disability, if we want to support people with disability through the COVID pandemic, we need to make sure that they are financially independent. And right now, they are just not. To be financially independent will help these women escape the domestic violence situations that they're in. Pre-COVID, I was on the DSP. I'm no longer on that, but the DSP was something that helped me work through my conditions when I was also escaping a domestic violence situation and without the DSP, I would not be where I am today, and we need to make sure that all women with disability or women in general, but all women with disability have that opportunity for protection and for financial independence. I think, yeah, essentially the prevention and the recovery, a lot of the focus has been on prevention at the moment and with the RAT’s and stuff, that's really important. But I think moving forward, we also need to now look at, okay, well, what are the experiences that these people have gone through during the past two years? And how are we going to support them to navigate those experiences? And so, some of the ideas that I think are really important is that we are helping mothers with children with disabilities, or mothers with disability navigate those schooling systems. They need behavioural support for those children. They need psychological support. There's people with intellectual disability who have not been able to see people and whose communication is now stunted, who are coming home to visit their families and are not talking. They're not their usual selves, and we need psychological support and behavioural support for those people. So, while the NDIS is a really important institution and we need to be definitely strengthening that, we also need to be looking beyond the NDIS to things like JobKeeper, to universal psychological support, to behavioural therapies and to ensuring the financial independence of our women and the supports, particularly for our most vulnerable people, such as in the criminal justice system. Thank you.


ASHA, DISABILITY WORKER: Hello, my name is Asha. I work in the disability sector for the last four years. I tested positive to COVID last August and I got infected whilst I was at work. My institution that I worked for refused to allow leave although I have been infected whilst at work. So, I advocate for the paid pandemic leave for disability support workers and disabled sector. This is really assurance in income for all the workers in the disability sector, so it has to be mandated for all the workers in the sector. Thank you very much.

MICAH HUTCHISON: My name is Micah Hutchison. I have been in the disability sector for almost 11 years. Through COVID, obtaining correct, adequate PPE has been so difficult. And then when you get hit with COVID, not having the adequate PPE to even protect yourself, your clients from getting PPE, sorry, getting COVID, it is crazy. I caught COVID at work, the gloves that you mainly get, they break instantly and then obtaining them is another ballpark. It's been a roller coaster that South Australia didn't see coming. They weren't ready. The disability sector was not ready to have massive waves of COVID hitting all of their houses, all of the supports. Staffing was not adequate in any houses. When COVID hit and then when you did have staff in there, they didn't have adequate help, assistance or protective equipment to stop them from getting COVID. So, then they ended up with COVID or getting it and giving it to clients. We need help. We need help now. We need the proper protection equipment that we need to be able to do our job to keep those with disabilities safe. That's all. 

SHORTEN: Good job.

ANDREW RICHARDSON, ARUMA: Good morning, my name's Andrew Richardson, and I’m the CEO of Aruma, we're one of the largest for purpose providers of support to people with disability in Australia. For us, COVID has been a huge challenge. We've had up to a quarter of our workforce of nearly 6000 people having to isolate either because they got COVID or they’re a close contact and you just run out of workers. So, you have overtime it's a real fund - managers working 24-hour shifts. Our staff have gone above and beyond to support our customers, people with disability, but they are exhausted. Now we see in other sectors, government agencies providing 10 to 15 per cent uplifts in people's plans to enable organizations like Aruma to support our staff to support people with disability. I think the latest offer from the National Disability Insurance Agency is of the order of a quarter of one per cent, and yet the cost uplift is in the 10 to 15 percent range. But really, COVID sadly is just the straw that is breaking the camel's back. As service providers, we face broken planning processes, broken administrative processes and savage cuts to many, many people with disabilities’ NDIS plans. And we advocate we fight for a better deal. But to date, those claims are falling on absolutely deaf ears, and we believe it's shameful that people with disability are being put at risk, the workers who support them are being put at risk because of the lack of response and the lack of care from the agencies and from the Federal Government.

SHORTEN: Well, good morning, everybody. First of all, I'd just like to thank the ACTU for organising today's session. We're seeing a little bit of history made today, and it's perhaps one silver lining out of COVID. We have disability care workers, together with disability advocates together with service providers. People who don't always agree exactly with everything that each of these people would say today, they're here for one common purpose. To bell the cat, to call time - to make clear that for people with disability COVID’s not over. COVID is an ongoing, horrible, scary nightmare. There's no doubt in my mind when you hear the stories of these workers, when you hear the story of advocates and people with disability, when you hear the service providers, you cannot be left with any other conclusion. But the Morrison Government's COVID response for people with disability in Australia has been dangerously incompetent. Negligent. There is a pathology of disregard for the lives of people with disability, which no amount of government propaganda can cover up. When people going about their lives during COVID think about some of the problems they've encountered - testing waiting times. The search for rapid antigen tests. Waiting for the booster shot. Waiting for the vaccination. A drop in ordinary services. Just multiply that by 10, for the experiences of people with disability. If you haven't got a carer who can come in to look after you to do some key functions so that you can live your daily life, what happens to that person? It is scary. For many people with disability, they've effectively been in lockdown since March of 2020, and it hasn't stopped. Surely this Government should have put people with disability and the people who work with them at the front of whatever queue there was. The reality is this Government lies about its statistics. The reality is that when it comes to vaccination rates, booster rates, access to personal protective equipment, access to rapid antigen tests, access to PCR testing, access to replacement workforce, people with disability have simply been treated as second class in this country. It highlights, I think, the problem of this Government and their view about people with disability. This is a Government who settles for second best on behalf of our most vulnerable, and we don't want to. So, I thank the workforce. I thank people with disability. I thank their advocates. I thank the service providers. But the Morrison Government's record during COVID for people with disability is dangerously incompetent. They can't even tell us perhaps the single most telling statistic, how many Australians who've died of COVID had a disability. And if they can't answer that basic question that speaks volumes about the incompetence, the dangerous incompetence of the Morrison Government, it's a real crying shame. I guess we're happy to take questions through Michelle.

JOURNALIST: Thanks. First, to Mr Shorten. You could be the Minister responsible for the NDIS in three months’ time. By that stage, there could be a new variant. If you're in Government and if you're a Minister responsible for the NDIS, what are three things that you would do to address the problems, which the advocates and service providers, workers and yourself have just addressed?

SHORTEN: Got to have the resources on hand to begin with. Got to get the RAT’s. Got to get the PPE. Got to make sure that there's replacement workforce. That's the first thing. These are the basics. You can't beat COVID unless you've got that basic support. So, stockpiling and making sure that people with disabilities and their carers are not left to scrounge, search, you know, and the service providers. So, make sure the equipment is there when people need it, not after they need it. The second thing is we have to have a long conversation about how we treat the disability workforce. I can't solve this in the first three months, but it's not good enough that we pay people who help empower the lives of our most vulnerable, that we're paying them 22, 23 bucks an hour. So, we've got to have the conversation. We've got to make sure that people are properly trained, we’ve got to make sure that disability is a worthwhile career, the people aren't– that the workforce aren't paying to make the gap for people, because the Federal Government is not there. And I think the third thing is we've got to have people with disability at the centre of all decisions. And that starts at the top. You know, I want to know what the Prime Minister is doing, what the Minister is doing, listening to people with disability advocates every week. Like, you've got to find out in real time - the problems are in real time. So, listen to people, treat the workforce with respect and make sure the basic ingredients of a safe environment are there for people. And congratulations on your news on the weekend.

JOURNALIST: Bill, do you commit, if you’re in Government, to raising that salary or the hourly wage for the disabled workers? Is that something you want to do?

SHORTEN: I can't put a dollar value on that, and I'm going to let the unions and the service providers and Fair Work Commission work through that. But I'm not stupid. I understand that the current wage is too low. It's not just about wages. I don't want to paint a picture that - people don't go into disability care to become multimillionaires, except maybe some of the property providers. But, you know, leaving them aside. The reality is that I think their work is undervalued. If you're a disability carer, and there's people much more qualified to speak about this than me here, so I feel a bit precocious, but I just make the point - you contribute with your physical labour, you contribute with your mental labour, but you also contribute with an ingredient which is completely undervalued, your emotional labour. You don't have the opportunity if you're having a bad day, you know the kids wouldn't get off to school or your hubby or your partner has lost their job or just financial stress, the tires on the car and bald and the police have pulled you over and you've got to replace them with a washing machine’s buggered - you can't take that bad day from home and take it to work. You've got to be up all the time, emotionally up as you move between two and three jobs a day. So, we don't value it properly. But it's also, I think, having career paths. It's working with disability service providers. I don't have an us versus them view of the workforce in disability, we're all doing the same thing. And of course, we have to make sure that people have disability themselves, just they're not children. We should not infantilise people with disabilities. So, I think there's all of that and I think you get all these ingredients in the right place, that’s a rising tide that can lift metaphorically all boats. 

JOURNALIST: A follow up to my question. Michelle used the phrase people with disability are put in the too hard basket, we had another representative talk about people with disability in the workforce being left behind, will you commit if you are the Minister in Government to not putting the sector in the too hard basket? I know it’s a high-level phrase, but I think everyone in the sector would appreciate [inaudible]

SHORTEN: If Labor forms a government, I am genuinely excited about the changes that we can make, I genuinely want to see - and no particular priority – tonight when we go to bed, there'll be aging carers wondering who's going to look after their adult child when they no longer can, that midnight anxiety. There's people with disability, they want a chance. But if the carer can't turn up, or if their taxi funding gets cut or they've got to constantly be on the phone to the Agency, we've got to take the uncertainty and the lottery effect out of government policy in disability, but it's not just the NDIS. This nation needs a national disability strategy. People with disability should not be invisible. Why can't we be encouraging companies to employ more people with disability? Why can't we make our mainstream school system more friendly to kids who are diagnosed with autism? Why can't we do better with our TAFE’s and universities to help provide opportunities for people to study? Why can't we do better with our vocational education and our secondary schools? Why can't we do better with paying people better in disability care? You know, why can't we health service providers that rather than them having to wait months for invoices to be paid by the Government, that disability service providers don't have to underwrite the function of government in this country. So, for me, disability is not a particular program. It's just a view of the world. It could be any of us at any time or anyone we love. And once we understand that it's any of us, then when we do something for disability, we're doing it for all of us. That's what I don't understand about this Government. They have a tiny picture of disability. They begrudge the expenditure. They through gritted teeth say, we can't afford this – there’s always a crisis. Investing in people with disability is investing in us as a people, I'm conscious that there's other people here so I might hand over to Michelle.

O’NEILL: Yeah, thanks. Are there any other questions?

JOURNALIST: Is there a stockpile of [inaudible] tests and PPE and so on, is there something readily available or is that something that you guys are trying to have some kind of more centralised stockpile of those sorts of resources?

O’NEILL: So, Andrew might want to jump in, so I'll just quickly say that there's not sufficient stockpiles, so the reality is that there has not been enough supply of PPE, not enough supply of rapid antigen tests, and their accessibility has been a major problem for the sector. So, this is one of the combined demands of advocates and the service providers and the unions today, is that there needs to be sufficient in the national stockpile, of what is needed to keep people with disabilities safe and the workers that work in this sector. But Andrew, would you like to add?

RICHARDSON: Sure, thanks Michelle. Yeah, I would add to that that it's always too little, too late. So, we see masks and other PPE turning up right at the end of a peak of Omicron, rather than at the front. Also, if you're a person with a disability who happens to live in what's called supported independent living, then you are entitled, the providers are entitled to rapid antigen tests. for you. But if you're any other person with disability, tough, go and pay for it out of your package if you can get them. So, it's not a fair or equitable system. 

O’NEILL: And the other question? Thanks very much everybody, appreciate it [clapping].