April 19, 2020 04:49:25
One thing Meaghan O’Brien has noticed in the last month is her cost of living is increasing.
- Many welfare recipients qualify for a Coronavirus Supplement of $550 per fortnight
- People who receive the Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment are ineligible
- Advocates say that’s unfair, but the Government says they are already paid “at the highest rate of support in the system”
“Groceries and stuff, definitely,” she said. “Prices have gone up.”
Ms O’Brien lives with autism spectrum disorder, rheumatoid arthritis and other disabilities. Her only income support is the Disability Support Pension (DSP).
Last month, the Government announced a Coronavirus Supplement of $550 per fortnight would automatically be paid to a number of welfare recipients from April 27.
This extended to those receiving payments including JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and Austudy, but those on the DSP and Carer Payment were excluded.
“I think it’s wrong,” Ms O’Brien said. “We still need to eat. We still need to cover our costs.”
At the beginning of March, Ms O’Brien’s rheumatologist prescribed hydroxychloroquine a drug identified as a possible treatment for coronavirus to treat her condition.
She hasn’t been able to find the medication in pharmacies anywhere.
“How am I supposed to go on it if I can’t find it?” she said.
Still, the 38-year-old from regional Victoria believes she is better off than many. She lives with her sister and is used to living a semi-isolated life because her arthritis drugs suppress her immune system.
“I’m luckier than a lot of other people,” she said. “Not everybody is as lucky as I am. They don’t have support.”
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Kelly and Gordon Cox both live with disabilities. They’re both on the DSP, but normally earn enough money through their jobs to not be reliant on those payments.
But Mr Cox’s work as a mentor and support worker has dried up and the Coronavirus Supplement would help with expenses.
“It would make a huge difference,” Ms Cox said.
“The cost of living has gone up for disabled people as much as everyone else.”
The couple are isolating at their home in Ballina, on the north coast of NSW.
“We’re at home with a 16-year-old son. There’s more food to buy. We moved a support worker into the house. Electricity has gone up because we’re using more.
“Particularly in terms of coronavirus, it seems as if people with disability and carers are almost forgotten.”
Advocates like Sam Connor, who lives with multiple disabilities, said the decision highlighted the Government’s ignorance of the financial impact of coronavirus on people with disabilities and their carers.
“I really do think it’s reflective of them not understanding what this looks like for us,” she said.
“People who are no longer able to catch public transport, for example, who now have extraordinary costs, who might be working part-time those sorts of issues.”
The West Australian mother of six said those on the DSP and the Carer Payment without extra support needed all the financial help they could get.
“The same thing goes for parents of disabled kids and a lot of us disabled parents of disabled kids as well,” she said.
“So there’s a whole bunch of complexities where we incur extra costs in day-to-day life.”
The politics of payments
West Australian Greens senator and disability advocate Jordon Steele-John said people with disability have always faced increased costs for everything from transport, to food, to medicine and this was being made worse by coronavirus.
“Outrageously, the Government excluded people on DSP, people on Carer Payment from receiving the $550-a-fortnight payment,” Senator Steele-John said
“[The argument] that people in these groups are not facing the financial burden that everybody else is falls apart the minute you talk to a disabled person and ask them about what they are experiencing in terms of financial costs at this time.”
There are about 747,000 people on the DSP and 282,000 receiving the Carer Payment, according to the most recent government statistics.
The basic rate for both payments without supplements is $860.60 per fortnight for an individual.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said the Coronavirus Supplement was being paid “in recognition that the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic will directly impede people’s chances of finding and retaining paid employment over coming months”.
“Pensions, including DSP and Carer Payment, are long-term payments and are typically paid at the highest rate of support in the system significantly higher than the JobSeeker base rate because recipients are not expected to work to support themselves due to age, disability or caring responsibilities.”
Fears for safety as workshops stay open
There are other parts of the economy where people with a disability are being treated differently too, according to advocates.
Many Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) have continued to operate. There are about 600 ADEs across the country, sometimes known as sheltered workshops.
Collectively, they employ about 20,000 people with disability, including many who live with intellectual disabilities. Most are paid under the Supported Wage System and earn a fraction of the award wages offered across similar industries.
The Fair Work Ombudsman website lists current minimum pay for ADE supported employees at $87 per week.
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Senator Steele-John said the continued operation of ADEs was unsafe for employees.
“They come together in group settings, often hundreds at a time, and undertake activities,” he said.
“And so in these group settings with older people, often people with intellectual cognitive disabilities, sometimes communication difficulties, it is incredibly difficult to enforce social distancing.
“There are challenges around people understanding what social distancing is.”
One ADE in Western Australia, Activ, closed its site in the Perth suburb of Bentley earlier this month after one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. It reopened several days later.
“Our employment services site in Bentley remains open and operational, with strict adherence to all guidelines provided by the relevant authorities,” Activ CEO Danielle Newport said in a statement.
“Measures currently in place to ensure the health and wellbeing of our supported employees and staff include staggered start, finish and break times to ensure physical distancing can be maintained at all times.”
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Activ normally has about 450 employees, and services include repackaging headphones for Qantas. It said that activity had been suspended but it is helping to supply packaged cutlery for hotels where people are in isolation.
Advocacy groups like Inclusion Australia said it was irresponsible to keep ADEs open.
“We need to do first things first,” Inclusion Australia CEO Catherine McAlpine said. “And that’s making sure people with intellectual disabilities don’t catch coronavirus.
“That means if social distancing can’t be maintained in every aspect of the workplace, that needs to be resolved.”
Queensland’s Endeavour Foundation temporarily shut down its ADEs on April 3.
“We believe we can no longer guarantee the safety of supported employees during this pandemic situation,” it said in a statement.
One of the issues it identified was the reliance of many of its employees on public transport.
“Given many of our supported employees use public transport, their exposure to COVID-19 is also increased which is another reason why we must make this difficult decision.”
Another ADE that has remained open posted a photo on its Facebook page last month showing participants standing close together, side-by-side, which indicated the workplace was not observing social distancing measures.
Ms Ruston’s spokesperson said it was up to each ADE to decide whether or not to close.
“The ADE sector covers a wide variety of work environments,” the statement said.
“Each ADE is a private company, which entitles them to make their own business decisions.”
Senator Steele-John said given the current risks, and the fact that many employees live in Supported Independent Living group homes, ADEs should be closed immediately.
“There is an extraordinary heightened risk to people’s safety in these settings,” he said.
“The kicker is that none of the work that is being done there is essential work.
“We cannot in good conscience, with the knowledge of those contextual factors, allow these institutions to continue to function through this crisis.”
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