‘Shadow pandemics’ exposed under-resourced community services

The “shadow pandemics” of mental illness, domestic violence and substance abuse have exposed a crisis in community services, a national group of academics from 17 universities has warned.

The Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable research network of 33 academics who are experts on work, care and family policy has found community services and support for the workers who provide them are inadequately resourced to provide protection against the broader pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a report to be released this week, the academics say: “The crisis in care is acute”.

“Many formal care services for the aged, children, and for people with disability that were already strained, collapsed under the pressure of the pandemic,” the report says.

"When people hear what we earn, they are shocked": Aged care worker Josie Peacock.
“When people hear what we earn, they are shocked”: Aged care worker Josie Peacock.Credit:Janie Barrett

“The crisis in care and employment has had an immediate and negative impact on gender equality and wellbeing in Australia, raising widespread concern about the shadow pandemics of domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse.”


The researchers say the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an under-resourced, precarious and low-paid workforce.

“Accompanied by limited resources, ineffective regulation and meagre quality standards, as well as inadequate governance arrangements, many services deliver sub-standard care,” the report says.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of early childhood, disability and aged care services.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of early childhood, disability and aged care services.Credit:Louise Kennerley

“Governments have a vital role to play in providing increased and sustained investment in equitable, high-quality care systems that include decent wages and secure employment for the care workforce, and equitable leave for all workers.”

Roundtable co-convenor Professor Sara Charlesworth from RMIT University said the pandemic highlighted the importance of early childhood, disability and aged care services in supporting labour market participation, particularly for women.

“We need the government back in this space. We need decent care services be they aged care, disability care, early learning care. Investment in these sectors is very good employment stimulus,” she said.

Many women had taken on the bulk of responsibilities for housework, caring for and home schooling children during the pandemic and many had lost work hours or jobs. Underemployed aged care workers often travelled from one facility to another to “cobble” enough hours together, putting themselves and those in their care at greater risk of virus infection.

Co-convenor Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill, said the coronavirus pandemic had exposed inadequate public expenditure on essential care services. And this had limited the supply of jobs, productivity and “national wellbeing”.

“The pandemic crisis has highlighted that without adequate systems of paid and unpaid care, our economy stops,” she said.

Josie Peacock, an aged care worker of 28 years who now works as a volunteer co-ordinator said workloads had increased dramatically and many aged care workers were paid about $22 per hour. Before the coronavirus pandemic, many had two or three jobs “to make ends meet” despite aged care being “vital for the social good”.

“We have never been truly valued for what we do,” she said. “When people hear what we earn, they are shocked.

“People are coming into residential care much frailer, with more complex conditions and staffing levels haven’t increased to keep up with that. The belts have just been tightened and tightened.

Gerard Hayes, national president of the Health Services Union said COVID-19 “showed us all that care is as essential to our society as emergency services, yet the workforce is paid only a fraction as much”.

“The aged care workforce deserve good secure jobs with decent pay, but the people receiving care also deserve that, as it’s the only way we are going to lift standards,” he said.

Australian Services Union NSW/ACT secretary Natalie Lang said the disability support workforce was subsidising the rest of society “by effectively donating their labour”.

“The government must invest in a trained, securely employed and properly paid workforce to ensure the NDIS can adequately meet the needs of people with disability,” she said.

‘We often retire in poverty’

Kim Hitchcock, 51, from Bega has been a disability support worker for more than 20 years. She worked with families overwhelmed by the summer bushfires when her own weekender burnt down.

“What we put into this community and how we work with our clients is completely undervalued,” she said.

“We are not provided with accredited training in a way that other professional workers are so that we can learn specialist skills and build a career in the jobs we love.

“Most of us are women who work casual or part-time and most of us will work past our 65th birthday because we can’t afford to retire. And when we do retire after a lifetime of looking after other people we often retire in poverty.”

A spokeswoman for Families and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said the federal government understood the effects of the pandemic are complex and since March has provided more than $500 million to respond to the mental health impacts of COVID-19 and a $150 million domestic violence response package.

“We acknowledge the vital work the community services sector does and as such this year announced $76 million in annual funding to secure the pay of thousands of frontline workers on an ongoing basis,” the spokeswoman said.

The government also invested $3 million to provide mental health and wellbeing support during the pandemic for health and aged care workers.

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