People with a disability stranded in bed for hours due to home care worker shortage

Australians living with a disability warn a shortage of home care workers is “failing” people and leaving some without help for critical daily tasks.

George Ayoub gets upset when he recalls a morning when a support worker did not show up, leaving him unable to get out of bed for hours until his son was able to help him.

Mr Ayoub uses a wheelchair and lives with post-polio and a respiratory condition that requires him to breathe through a respirator throughout the day.

“I’m waiting in bed to get up and nobody showed up,” he told 7.30, recalling the incident from his home in Western Sydney.

“Thank God I had my son in the spare room and he was able to provide me with some help, but there’s things a person needs to do: go to the bathroom, have a shower, get up and wake up, get some breakfast.

“And I laid back in bed with a tear in my eye, thinking, ‘Is this what it’s coming down to?'”

The system, he says, “is failing us – it’s failing us tremendously”.

‘It’s demoralizing’

A man wearing a blue shirt.
George Ayoub is still looking for more support workers to assist him throughout the day.(ABC News: Shaun Kingma)

Disability support workers are essential for many people who live with disabilities independently at home.

Mr Ayoub usually has a roster of casual workers who come to his home to help him with daily tasks from morning to night, but finding someone to fill a shift has become increasingly difficult in recent months.

“I advertised trying to employ someone and I never got one response,” he said.

Pre-COVID, he said, he had “about 60 responses” when he put an ad out.

It has been so difficult to find staff that his wife Beverly had to quit her job as a school teacher for the year to stay home and care for him.

“Personally, it’s demoralizing because you don’t want to feel like you’re a burden on anyone,” he said.

After six months without a disability support worker, Mr Ayoub has recently found a worker who comes to his home to help him and his wife for a few hours each day.

It has eased the burden, however, he is still in need of a few more workers to fill shifts throughout the day.

Long-term staffing issues

A woman with short hair wearing a gray jacket.
Laurie Leigh says the worker shortage is partly due to the growth of the NDIS.(ABC News: Jerry Rickard)

“The situation with staffing is pretty dire at the moment,” said Laurie Leigh, chief executive of National Disability Services (NDS) – the peak body for non-government disability service providers.

“There are long-term staffing issues within the sector which certainly have not been resolved recently.”

Ms Leigh told 7.30 that earlier this year about a third of the workforce was furloughed due to having COVID-19 or being a close contact.

The problem is persisting now due to a confluence of factors, which those in the industry have told 7.30 includes COVID-19 isolation, a lack of international workers due to the pandemic, low wages in the sector and a casualized workforce.

“The sort of data that we have at the moment is that for about 15 per cent of our members, they have up to about 15 per cent of their shifts that are going vacant,” Ms Leigh said.

And that, she said, had serious impacts on the industry.

“There are many times when providers are saying that there are service demands that they have that they’re not able to meet because of the lack of workforce.”

Need for more workers

Kevin Andrews outside Parliament House.
Kevin Andrews says the disability sector is competing for staff with the aged care sector.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

A recent report by parliament’s joint standing committee on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) found that an estimated 83,000 extra workers would need to fill the gaps in the system by 2024 as the rollout of the service continued.

But it remains unclear just where those workers will come from.

“Our latest report really reinforced what has been known for some time,” federal government MP Kevin Andrews, who chairs that parliamentary committee, told 7.30.

“And that is that with the rollout of the NDIS, there is a considerable demand for a larger workforce.”

And the disability sector, he said, was competing for staff with the aged care sector, among others.

Concerningly for those in the sector, a recent survey by the Australian Council of Trade Unions found a third of workers were planning to leave in the next year.

Mr Andrews said the National Disability Insurance Agency (the body that administrators the NDIS) had a plan to address the issue but he told 7.30: “There needs to be more training opportunities.”

“Obviously, there needs to be a pathway for workers,” he said.

Mr Andrews said the problem was inherent in the way the system had been designed to give recipients the autonomy to choose how they received help from support workers.

“One of the difficulties is the challenge here of providing for workers in an area in which people are able to determine what work they want for themselves,” he said.

“So you know, somebody might want someone 24/7 but somebody else might only want someone for an hour or two each day or every second day or whatever.

“So there are flexibilities that are required in terms of the way in which work occurs in this sector by the nature of a system which has been designed to put the recipient of the services at the very center of the way in which this operates.”

In a statement, NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds told 7.30 the government’s NDIS workforce plan, launched last June, provided a framework to grow the sector and attract more staff by 2025.

Training new staff ‘is hard, it’s expensive’

A woman wearing a mask faces a man sitting in a chair.
Support worker Susan Wein with a client.(ABC News: Ivy Mutuku)

Disability support worker Susan Wein knows firsthand the struggles the industry is facing with worker shortages

“Training new staff is hard,” she told 7.30.

“It’s expensive. You can’t just send someone in to go and hoist someone up if they haven’t done it before.”

She works for an agency called Nightlife, which provides help to people at their homes overnight.

During the COVID-19 Omicron wave this year, staff shortages were so severe, Ms Wein said everyone in the office was asked to roll up their sleeves.

“Our general manager, for example, was out there actually doing routines with people, showering people, assisting them to bed turning… even our CEO would man the phones,” she said.

‘Makes me feel a little bit not important’

Man sitting in a wheelchair next to a window.
Carl Thompson says he has been left in bed until lunchtime on a number of occasions. (ABC News: Simon Winter)

Melbourne-based Carl Thompson is also struggling to find workers he requires for essential daily tasks such as getting out of bed, showering, eating and getting back to bed at the end of the day.

“I couldn’t really function properly without them, to be honest,” he told 7.30.

“I have a pool of about 10 support workers who are my regular ones. And then every week, I organize a bit of a roster.”

While he enjoys the autonomy of being able to choose individual workers, finding casual staff to fill the three to four shifts per day has become increasingly difficult.

“At the moment, the supply [of workers] is not catching up with the demand, “he said.

And the ramifications can be serious.

Man in a wheelchair with a woman sitting next to him.
Carl Thompson at home with his girlfriend.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

“There have been quite a few cases where I simply could not find a support worker to fill a shift, so I’ve had to stay in bed until lunchtime without support for getting dressed or going to the toilet.

“It’s really stressful not knowing exactly when my needs are going to be met in that respect.

“It does kind of make me feel a little bit not important.”

NDS CEO Laurie Leigh said she wanted to see systemic change and a concerted effort by the government to attract and retain workers to the sector.

“The shortfall is in part because of the growth in the NDIS, which is a really good thing,” she said.

“Having said that, the things that can help with the shortfall are improved wages and conditions for people working in the disability sector, improved training, development and payments for providers to ensure that training and development for their staff are a key part of what they offer, [and] improved migration settings around bringing people to deliver disability care. “

Ms Leigh said the sector expected the staffing shortage to worsen again during the winter if COVID-19 rose cases.

Watch this 7.30 story on ABC News and ABC iview.

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