Supporting our Support Workers

Three face masks hanging from a car dashboard.

By Claudia Forsberg

Interacting with people while infected with COVID-19 may become unavoidable if the person has no alternative arrangements. For many disabled people, isolation is not an option, writes Claudia Forsberg.

Behind many disabled people, there are many more support workers; people paid to help us with the day to day tasks we would otherwise be unable to complete on our own. As much as we’d sometimes like our support workers to disappear into the background (especially those of us who would like to live as independently as possible), we also know they are a vital part of our lives.

I love my support workers and think they are amazing, not because they are heroes for looking after ‘poor helpless people’ such as myself. But rather because their work gives me freedom and independence. They take care of the things I can’t do so that I can do the things I can do. I’ve been lucky to have many support workers in my life who are good at their jobs, supporting my individual needs. Some are now my lifelong friends.

If you’ve watched the news lately, you’ll have heard of the cases of healthcare and support workers who have taken shifts in nursing homes, even while sick during the coronavirus pandemic. Reports like this have also been popping up in regard to disabled peoples’ support workers.

At first, you might think this absurd, irresponsible or reckless. How could they put our most vulnerable people at risk? I think it’s important to stop and ask what might motivate workers to behave this way.

According to the job search site Neuvoo, the average Disability Support Worker salary in Australia is around $57,500 per year, or $29.50 per hour. Sites like Hireup (where support  workers can be hired on a casual basis) indicate similar rates. However, this is a best-case scenario.

What these figures don’t take into account is that most disability support workers are, in fact, casual workers, which means no paid leave, and shifts that are not typically 9 to 5. In most cases, a person like me will hire a support worker for 1-2 hours at a time.

These figures also don’t take into account the fact that support workers have to drive their own car to and from work several times a day or that, in the middle of a pandemic, some support workers might be paying for their own PPE due to shortages or lack of supplies.

I have four support workers who are rostered on periodically. If one of them gets sick, or they’re forced to stay home after being tested or being in close contact with someone with COVID-19, I am down a support worker and they are not paid.

Imagine a support worker without a safe position, perhaps a parent who is financially supporting a family, during this pandemic. Desperate times make people do desperate things, like showing up to work with a slight cold.

Conversely, disabled people who are sick still need support workers. Interacting with people while infected with COVID-19 may become unavoidable if the person has no alternative arrangements. For many disabled people, isolation is not an option.

In time likes these, systemic flaws in frontline sectors like disability support are highlighted, and there are things we can do about it now, like implementing paid pandemic leave for all registered support workers and providing free PPE to protect employees.

Perhaps we should even have a good look at making adjustments to the casual workforce system as a whole, given that this is how many support workers are, and will be, working in the future.

Whatever we do, it’s time that support workers are treated with the same level of respect as nurses and other frontline workers during this crisis.

It’s time to take care of the people who are taking care of us.

Claudia Forsberg is a freelance journalist and writer based in Melbourne. She is currently studying for a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at RMIT University. Claudia is passionate about politics, social/cultural issues and media diversity. You can view more of her work at: