Woefully underfunded, Massachusetts’ human services sector can’t pay a living wage to workers who support those with developmental disabilities (Guest Viewpoint)

Families of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have made enormous sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Day programs that serve these individuals were closed in the first part of the pandemic and have had limited capacity more recently due to workforce challenges.

The residential programs, which serve individuals who do not live with family members, managed to keep individuals safe even as staffing levels were reduced by the virus itself and the same workforce constraints that have affected the capacity of day programs.

In many respects, the state’s human services provider system has operated much like a sixth man in basketball: A provider of essential, life-sustaining care to people in need while receiving less visibility and notoriety than first responders, hospital workers and others in health care .

Direct support staff must be attuned to all of the social and medical needs of the individuals who they serve. This includes: bathing, grooming and toileting assistance, including in some cases using a lift to move individuals; monitoring dietary restrictions, feeding and eliminating choking hazards; helping with ambulation by accompanying individuals as they use a walker or pushing them in a wheelchair; and providing companionship and support around the clock.

The men and women who work in this system don’t seek glory. What they want and need is a living wage that enables them to meet their personal and family obligations while continuing to do something they love. Right now, that doesn’t exist.

To run a human services agency is to hear countless stories of direct support professionals who decide they can no longer work the extra shifts or second and third jobs to be able to pay their bills. We have staff resigning their positions to work at big-box stores, fast-food restaurants or delivery companies because they can earn more while working fewer hours and with far less responsibility. They are usually incredibly frustrated to have to leave work that they love to do a job that is significantly less meaningful to them.

The recent bout of consumer inflation and skyrocketing fuel prices, as well as the out-of-control housing market, only add to the challenge. Paying $6 for a dozen eggs or over $4 for a gallon of gas makes anyone question their economic sustainability, as does getting a notice from your landlord that your rent has gone up by hundreds of dollars. Moving farther away just increases the amount of gas you need to get to your job.

I recently attended the retirement party of an assistant director of one of our programs. She worked her way up to that position. After serving our clients for 19 years, her hourly wage was $23 – a little under $48,000 for a career dedicated to caring. That is the highest salary we are allotted to pay for her position based on the state’s reimbursement formula.

In some cases, our employees are actually making less than the individuals with IDD who they are transporting to jobs. We are thrilled that those we serve are finally earning respectable wages, but something is wrong when they are out-earning the staff who nurture their independence and make their work possible.

The work of our direct support professionals saves all of us money in the long run. The services that they provide enable some measure of independence for people with IDD and create economic opportunity by letting parents and other relatives go to work knowing their loved one’s needs are being met. These services also prevent the need for services in more costly and less dignified settings, like hospitals or shelters. Some of the individuals we serve would otherwise experience homelessness.

We need the state to invest $581 million in a special fund that will enable providers to pay $20 an hour for direct care jobs and remain competitive in the workplace. We simply cannot recruit a capable and qualified staff at current rates. The governor’s and House versions of the fiscal 2023 state budget fall $351 million short in reaching this goal. We urge the Senate to recognize this critical junction and fully fund the human services workforce.

Human services worker churn benefits nobody.

The alternative to increasing funding – to do nothing – will assure us of an undermanned system that falls short of providing individuals who are intellectually and developmentally disabled the engagement, support and services they need to thrive in the community. The frustrations that many families have felt during the pandemic, when access to services is limited, will become a permanent state of being.

The reality is that we have been asked to do more with less for too long, and we have crossed the threshold of unsustainability. Swift action is needed by our policymakers to ensure that human services direct support staff are here to care for the vulnerable populations that depend on us.

Sean M. Rose, M.Ed. is President & CEO of Thrive Support & Advocacy at Marlborough and Worcester.

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