Low-paid disability support workers are spending large amounts of their working day in activities that are unpaid, a new study has found.
The study conducted by researchers at RMIT University analysed the work patterns and pay of 10 employees delivering support under the National Disability Insurance Scheme over three consecutive work days.
The research investigated two main types of unpaid work – travel between clients and overtime spent on administration and providing extra support to clients.
For some of the disability support workers, this unpaid work made up a quarter of their working day and was equivalent to a third or more of their paid work time.
Of the 10 workers in this study, half recorded 12 per cent or more of their work time as unpaid, including one worker who spent 21 per cent of their time consumed in unpaid work.
The financial cost to the already low-paid support workers was significant, ranging from $8.84 to $180 over the three days studied.
If all travel between clients and overtime had been paid, the workers would have received between 2 and 27 per cent more pay, according to the study published in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal Economic and Labour Relations Review.
The frontline workers raised unpaid travel time as a particularly negative aspect of their jobs, especially when client visits were short.
As an example, one support worker in the study spent an hour and a half travelling directly between clients in a day.
The mainly part-time workers cited fear of jeopardising further work opportunities as a key reason for not turning down shifts that involved a lot of travel, as well as a sense of responsibility to their clients or managers.
A provision for paid travel time is not included in the industrial award for the sector, and only one employer in this research paid for travel between clients as part of an enterprise agreement.
However, seven of the disability support workers received a per-kilometre reimbursement for using their own cars when travelling between clients.
“Employers appear to have actively exploited the lack of clear minimum standards: paying vehicle allowances for travel between assignments suggests acceptance of this activity as work – while not paying wages for this time,” the authors wrote in the study’s published findings.
Half of the workers in the study accrued 50 minutes or more over the three days in unpaid work completing administration such as writing up client notes or providing extra support to clients. For four workers, this type of work amounted to 10 per cent or more of their paid work time.
The authors described this form of unpaid work as “endemic” and invisible to employers as the additional work was often absorbed into the unpaid time between their shifts.
Unexpected events such as client illness, family carers returning home late or a mismatch between client needs and funded supports were cited as some of the reasons for providing unpaid support to clients.
Many of the staff said they undertook unpaid work due to a personal commitment to providing quality care. They also linked their willingness to undertake unpaid work to job insecurity and to keep clients happy. The staff also reported it was often difficult or impractical to claim the regular overtime.
“Inferior benefits and conditions for social care workers were established in Australian employment regulation long before the introduction of the NDIS. However, our findings support the view that the NDIS is further institutionalising employment practices that produce wages underpayment,” the authors wrote.
The research was conducted by RMIT researchers Fiona MacDonald, Eleanor Bentham and Jenny Malone.
They said further investigation of these issues was necessary through a larger study.
Policy response overseas
Legal cases have been brought in New Zealand and England to challenge the practice of unpaid travel time between client visits resulting in recognition of travel time as paid work time.
In 2015, the New Zealand government introduced a travel time payment to cover travel between clients.