New survey shows impact of COVID-19 on community sector and those it helps

A new survey finds the community service sector is approaching crisis point due to COVID-19, with more than a million people excluded from income support, and expected cuts to income support for over 2 million others. The sector is also dealing with the doubling of unemployment and a rise in serious mental health issues, as well as drops in fundraising, drops in JobKeeper amounts, and future funding uncertainty.

Australia’s Community Sector and COVID-19: Supporting communities through the crisis is an initiative of the Australian Community Sector Survey (ACSS), a partnership between ACOSS and the COSS Network supported by Community Sector Banking, with research undertaken by the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre.

Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, peak body for the community sector in Australia said: “Community services are vital at all times but especially in crisis.

Photo from the ABC: Dr Cassandra Goldie

Workers in the community service sector provide support to people when they need it most, when they’re facing homelessness, escaping domestic violence or dealing with mental health issues. These services are more important than ever in the current health and economic crisis.

“Services have rapidly adapted to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19. The financial impact on the sector has been varied, ——-with government funding and JobKeeper sustaining many parts of the sector. But there is a lot of concern about the road ahead.

“The community sector is approaching a crisis point as we see the anticipated collision of cuts to income support, worsening financial pressure and a potential end to government funding for equal pay.

“Community sector workers are clear that the current, more adequate income support payments are making a big difference for people’s ability to meet basic needs, such as buying winter clothes for their kids, replacing broken white goods and repairing cars.

Service workers are fearful of what the impending cuts at the end of the month and at Christmas will mean for people and the demand it will place on the community sector.

“The community sector is doing all it can to help but there are serious concerns that it will not be able to cope with the level of need if we don’t fix social security for people affected by the pandemic and recession, including securing income supports and housing and delivering sustainable funding solutions for services and supports.

Already, we are seeing increased demand for services from people currently frozen out of government assistance. There are more than one million people in Australia on temporary visas, international students or people seeking asylum who have been completely excluded from income support despite very limited employment prospects.”  

  • Almost 9 in 10 (86%) of community sector respondents in migrant and multicultural services reported increased numbers of people reaching out for help during COVID-19.

“As community sector workers rise to meet increasing demand for some services, they are also reporting serious concerns about the financial stress their own organisations are facing.

While government funding has largely remained steady or has increased, more than a third of organisations reported that their overall financial situation had worsened through the crisis. Most organisations report lost income from philanthropy and commercial sources.”

  • About a third (31%) of organisations had frozen recruitment and a fifth (21%) had reduced staff hours.
  • A fifth (21%) will need to cut jobs when JobKeeper support ends.

“JobKeeper has been a lifeline for the community sector, allowing it to keep on staff to help those in need. Unless the Federal Government steps in to provide additional financial support for the community sector, as JobKeeper winds down services will need to cut staff hours, jobs, and services, at a time when there is more need than ever.

“The Federal Government has also yet to commit to extending vital funding after June 2021 for the community sector that allows the predominately female workforce to receive equal pay for their crucial work, helping those most in need.

“This funding – called Equal Remuneration Order (ERO) supplementation – was established in 2012 to help community sector organisations ensure its workforce (80% female) receive fair pay. The funding ($554 million in 2020/2021) is due to expire in June 2021 and the Federal Government has not yet committed to renewing it.

  • “Almost 70% of organisational leaders surveyed said the loss of the ERO supplementation would cause financial pressure and more than half (55%) said they would have to reduce staff hours and service provision – when they are expecting more demand and will need to maintain and increase service delivery.

“If we are truly all in this together, the Government needs to commit to delivering adequate funding for community service workers, who are vital in helping those most in need to get through this crisis,” Dr Goldie said.

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