How To Create Better Working Conditions For Community Service Workers That Improves Outcomes for Vulnerable People

The Community Services Sector in Australia is a wide-spanning industry, which covers a range of welfare services, including disability care, residential aged care, home care, child care, and family support. This is achieved through face to face, or telephone interaction, either through advocacy, counselling, and community development, or through direct service delivery, undertaking tasks such as personal care, medication management, social support, or transport assistance.

Services offered by these organisations are largely Government funded, however, there is still a percentage of expenditure that must be covered by the organisation itself – either through client fees, donations from the public, sponsorship, or public sales. As a whole, the industry has suffered a long period of under-funding due to Government budget cuts, increases in demand due to the NDIS, low wages, and a shortage of employees. This places pressure on the industry as a whole, making it harder for individuals to access the adequate level of service they may need to address their complex needs.

Personal Support workers, those who directly care for the sick, elderly, disabled, or those needing day to day help, are some of the lowest paid workers in the industry, struggling with meagre award wages, unpaid overtime, unpredictable work schedules, job insecurity, and a lack of career progression, even after many years in service. Unpaid time has become a part of the norm, and is an expectation of the job, primarily coming from families taking up time with questions and concerns, unpaid travel time between private residences where they provide care, to the next, or through administration, such as incident reporting, writing client notes, or completing timesheets. While these tasks may be seen as part of the job, for a job which is already poorly paid, ten minutes here and there throughout the course of the day, can lead to hours of unpaid work over a month, which equates to thousands of dollars in lost wages over the period of a year. The working standards that currently exist for many frontline care workers are some of the poorest working conditions in Australia, yet the pivotal role they play in caring for the vulnerable is invaluable to society.

Community services work is altruistic in nature; the sense of ‘social responsibility’ often described by those who work in the sector, coupled with a tendency to “donate work-time”, more so than other organisations who do the same type of work, means that most employees are not motivated by the money they earn, but rather by the good deeds they do. In many instances, non-monetary rewards will outweigh monetary rewards, and job satisfaction is gained from a sense of self-fulfillment, contribution to society, and from the formation of relationships with new people.

While there has been steady growth in the community services sector over the last couple of decades, through greater awareness of human rights, changing attitudes to aging, mental illness and disability, changes to Government legislation, and the establishment of the advocacy group Carers Association of Australia (now Carers Australia) in 1993, community services is still an industry which has been plagued with poor industrial relations agreements, lack of industry regulation, and minimal recognition by the Government, industries and society as a whole, for its contribution to the community.

Over the coming years, as our societal needs and expectations increase, the need to attract and retain workers in the community services and disability sector will become even more important. Employee retention is underrated as an important factor in an industry where staff continuity is vital in establishing familiarity and trust between the care worker and service user.

Sadly, it is those in need of these services who are dearly paying the price for the poor working conditions that carers are subjected to. This ultimately places pressure on the health care system, in turn impinging on individuals’ ability to access a quality level of service that properly addresses their needs.

The recognition and support of the hard work put in by personal support workers, through increased award wages, better job security, and overall better working conditions is the first step in (a) making carers’ feel appreciated and emotionally engaged with their work (b) helping individuals in the community, and in turn helping the greater community, and (c) boosting the Australian economy, by generating economic stimulus for communities, through increased spending.