NDIS & the de-professionalisation of the disability workforce

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I recently attended a staff recognition event for Community Facilitator, Brigid Barilla, who is celebrating ten years of service with Interchange. When I first met Brigid, she was a shy but eager volunteer looking for a career change. I could tell straight away how much Brigid cared for our customers. But I was keen for Brigid to learn more about the social justice agenda underlying our service.

Wendel with Brigid and Spearwood Service Centre Manager, Alison
Wendel with Brigid and Spearwood Service Centre Manager, Alison

Brigid returned to TAFE as a mature age student and was soon able to secure a full-time position with Interchange. She’s been with us ever since and remains a valued member of our support team. Her recent milestone has reminded me of the importance of retaining dedicated, effective and loyal staff.

In Celtic mythology, Brigid is the Herald of the Dawn and the Keeper of the Eternal Flame. Our own Brigid has lived up to her mythological namesake. She was the first person I employed when I came to Interchange ten years ago. So she really did herald the rise of Interchange from a back-yard family-run agency to the large and successful organisation we’ve become today.

Yet one of the risks with such rapid growth is that bigger organisations can lose the fire of passion and purpose that fuels such growth in the first place. That’s why I also like to think of Brigid as a Keeper of the Flame. Whether that flame is “Truth” or “Social Justice” or “Hope” or simply “The Joy of Service” – Brigid has personified the passion necessary for excellence in support work. She reminds me that the true Keepers of the Flame are not our directors, managers or office-bound bureaucrats, but the hands-on staff who work tirelessly with our customers day after day, year upon year.

So how do you keep good staff like Brigid? Management manuals will list things like: clear career paths, employee recognition, cultivating freedom and flexibility, showing corporate social responsibility, and offering competitive remuneration and working conditions.

Community Facilitator Brigid addressing the team at Spearwood Service Centre
Brigid with the team at Spearwood Service Centre

While these things are important, in our industry, it’s always the mission that matters. Interchange believes in a world where all people are fully included in every aspect of community life. We seek to recruit and maintain staff who not only share this vision, but consider it their personal mission and morality. These people are proud to work in the disability industry and are motivated by social justice more than mere remuneration.

But as I’ve written in an earlier blog, disability is a rights issue, not a charity case. Staff are doing an extremely important job and need to be remunerated accordingly. If we value our customers, we must value our staff. And that means offering them a fair wage, employment security, ongoing training and career options. However the current state of the disability industry is eroding many of the ways that management can reward and recognise our devoted staff. The introduction of the NDIS risks making matters even worse.

For example, the NDIS funding rates are currently around 12 percent less than the rates offered in the My Way catchment areas. Eighty percent of Interchange costs are in staffing. So the only way to remain sustainable under the NDIS is to radically reduce employment costs. This means employing less qualified, less experienced and less career-minded staff. It also means an increased use of casual staff, with a corresponding drop in training and supervision time.

In other words, the decrease in disability funding under the NDIS will result in a decrease in staff expertise and experience which, in turn, must result in a decrease in service quality.

The introduction of the NDIS thus risks a complete de-professionalisation of the disability industry in Western Australia.

For example, Interchange currently has nearly 50 percent of its staff employed in full-time permanent positions. The average for our industry is about half that, and falling. Full-time permanency not only gives staff certainty and reward, but guarantees consistency and familiarity for our customers.

Ten years ago I had no hesitation in employing Brigid for a full-time permanent position. I was even willing to sponsor her TAFE studies knowing that I would see a clear return on investment in terms of loyalty and expertise. However, with the ambiguity and austerity now underscoring contemporary funding packages, the use of casuals and even agency staff becomes a mitigating factor in addressing sector uncertainty. Besides, the NDIS calculates staff costs at entry-level rates, so employing qualified and experienced staff like Brigid becomes increasingly problematic.

This is scandalous when you consider the benefits someone like Brigid has brought to our organisation, not to mention the joy and support she has given to hundreds of customers. Brigid comes from a non-English speaking background and has assisted many of our Italian families with ongoing cultural and communication issues. She has built long term relationships with families and allied service providers, and is mentor and role-model to younger staff entering the sector.

Recognition is an essential principle in retaining good staff, so I was pleased to celebrate Brigid’s recent employment milestone. But true recognition means more than a cake or a party. We must show a tangible reward for qualifications and experience as reflected in the remuneration and working conditions of our committed staff.

Hence, disability funding must recognise the tenure and expertise of support staff as an essential component in underwriting quality services. Using that criterion, the NDIS has failed before it has barely started.

If the government truly wants to improve services to people with disability, it will look after the agencies that look after the staff that look after the people. We need more workers like Brigid, not less.

Wendel Bamford