Long announced and postponed twice, from February 2021, we finally have a national NDIS worker screening database (with the Northern Territory due to follow on 1 July). The database is intended to provide portability of worker screening between states and territories. Imagining that I was a new worker wanting to apply for a job to provide NDIS supports, I went on a quest to apply for the new NDIS worker screening.

Where to apply?

The NDIS Commission website is full of information on what worker screening is and when it is required, yet it fails to inform a prospective worker where to apply, how to apply, what criteria will determine if a worker is deemed suitable and what it will cost.

After extensive search on the website, I come across the sentence that ‘the NDIS worker screening check is conducted by the Worker Screening Unit in a state of territory where a person applies for.’  While this still does not tell me where to apply (and there is no application link to be found) I have learnt that the national check will be conducted by the unit in the state where I apply.

So, should I lodge my application at the Worker Screening unit in South Australia, Tasmania or New South Wales? Hearing that each state sets their own prices for the worker screening, I wonder if I should do a price comparison first before starting my application. New South Wales charges $80 for the check, while the same check costs $115.50 in South Australia, $119.40 in Victoria, $135.00 in the ACT and $145 in WA. The Tasmanian website lists the price of $113.40 for a check to work with vulnerable people and I assume the NDIS screening will cost the same.

Who can apply?

A search on the South Australian Screening Unit website tells me that the application needs to be started by ‘the applicant (rather than an individual or person)’. While this sounds almost logical, I get confused by clicking on ‘applicant’ where I learn that the application is started by the organisation that needs someone to have a check. Going back to the page where I started, I read that organisations cannot start the NDIS worker check. After more reading across websites, I have now learnt that only individuals can start the NDIS worker screening application.

Back on SA’s Screening Unit website I finally find the ‘Apply for check’ field (which is hidden in the ‘Application information for individuals’ section). The ‘Screening and background check form’ pops up on my computer screen and I am informed that I can only apply if I reside or intend to reside in South Australia and that I intend to work in South Australia. It looks like my price comparison was a waste of time after all.

The application form also tells me that I require an NDIS employer ID number to verify that they employ me or that they intend to employ me to be eligible for an NDIS worker check. How can I apply for a job in the sector if I do not know if I am able to provide the necessary evidence, if I meet the eligibility criteria and if I am likely to receive clearance? And who would offer me a job in the sector before they know that I have passed the screening test? My screening application will not proceed unless I find an NDIS provider (registered or not) who verifies my application and is willing to employ me.

From now on NDIS providers will need to offer employment or volunteer work subject to worker clearance and then wait and see if the person will pass the screening test (unless they have an acceptable check under transitional and special arrangements). Scarily, in some states and territories (depending on state law) workers can start work once they have submitted the application. According to the NDIS Commission website, providers need to check the requirements in their state and territory. NDIS providers who engage staff with a pending application are required to do a risk assessment and need to ensure that these workers are supervised by a person with a valid NDIS worker screening clearance.

Training and supervision are costly. Given we have limited experience of how long each NDIS worker screening check will take, I would be hesitant to employ someone with a pending screening application, given they are granted by an agency that currently can take up to 10 months to approve an NDIS provider registration. The NDIS worker screening application flowchart outlines nine steps before an employer is notified of the screening outcome. Each of the steps could hold up or cease the process.

How to apply?

SA’s Screening Unit website tells me that to apply I will need an Australian’s driver’s licence and one of the following documents: Australian birth certificate, Australian citizenship certificate or Australian passport. As it happens, I have none of these documents to prove that I am a trustworthy NDIS worker. In an industry with a high percentage of migrant workers, I suspect that I am not the only one.

A further search on the website leads me to a section where it explains how I can do an alternative 100-point identification check. Interestingly, the 100-point check seems to be slightly different in each state. I also learn that for the screening to proceed in NSW I have to visit a Service NSW centre in person after completing an online form beforehand to show my documents and pay the fee I wonder how difficult it would be for prospective workers or volunteers in remote or very remote areas to apply in person.

While the 100-point check is certainly not new, any delays in providing relevant information by the worker will delay the screening and hold up the employment. In the past, providers could ask for a worker clearance as a prerequisite for a job interview.

Who will receive clearance?

The South Australian screening unit will conduct a national criminal history check, SA government related care and concerns and investigations, police reports, court sentencing, national convictions and charges, and child protection information. The website lists convictions that likely result in an unsuccessful application. The NSW NDIS worker check details on the application assessment, what offences are deemed ‘disqualifying offences or ‘presumptively disqualifying offences.’ The website also informs which decisions can be reviewed upon request.

Each state and territory has its own regulations and procedures around working with children. In all states, workers still need a separate ‘working with children check’ if they work with children. Could a person who is banned from working with children be cleared to work with a person with disability (or vice versa)?

The aged care sector, on the contrary, can do their own risk assessment. Providers require a statutory declaration from the worker and may request a national police check or aged care sector screening. The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has recommended a national registration scheme for aged care workers. The current aged care checks are still valid for NDIS workers who are working in residential age care providers that also support NDIS participants. However, the checks will no longer be valid after three years having passed from the date the police certificate was issued.

What have I learnt?

While there is lots of information on NDIS worker screening, particularly on the NDIS Commission website, the information is not always easy to understand and relevant for the individual who needs to apply for the screening clearance. In a sector that struggles to attract workers and where workers often speak English as a second language, the process seems challenging, especially in some states. The requirement to submit documents in person in some states might work for some, or be a deterrent for others. Fees of up to $115 that need to be paid via credit card or debit card could create a barrier for low-income earners.

NDIS providers will need to be prepared for delays and will need to constantly monitor the NDIS Commission portal. Some providers have started to create an additional pool of casual workers as risk mitigation for slow or halted approvals and times of higher workforce demand. Easy English information and assistance for workers to submit the screening application and to pay the application fee will be required and it will again fall onto providers to provide the support.

Will the screening make the NDIS service provision safer?

The NDIS screening will be monitored for any new criminal and workplace records across Australia, which is a great improvement and justifies the five-year validity of the clearance. The introduction of a national system that prohibits workers with a conviction in one state from working in a different state is the biggest gain of this database.

Differences across the country make me wonder if the NDIS worker screening it is a national check or a reciprocal acceptance of checks. A more consistent approach across aged care and child services would reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and increase the safety across all sectors.

What disappoints me about the new screening is that I expect fewer voluntary checks across the sector. As a consultant working with boards and management teams, I felt compelled to apply for NDIS worker clearance but as I am not directly employed by the sector, I did not progress my application.

Providers will follow the rules and only screen ‘NDIS workers’ that fall under the definition of the worker screening rules in ‘risk assessed roles’. Instead, providers should assess the risk potential of every staff member and contractor, follow their own judgement and review hazards, exposure, and the vulnerability of the people they support. Also, workers, volunteers, contractors, or casual visitors should be able to provide screening evidence upfront, which could increase safety and remove barriers to engagement.