by Tine Hansen-Turton and Mike Clark, For the Inquirer
We are three months into the vaccination schedule for COVID-19, several federal relief packages later, and we still did not get it right for the hardworking staff who came to work during the darkest days of this pandemic and showed up to care for the most vulnerable people who depend on them 24/7.
Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) provide integral, daily support to people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). DSPs are essential to our country as they assist with all aspects of daily life, including bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning, and administering medication. These workers drive clients to and from activities and medical appointments. DSPs work side-by-side with their clients to ensure that they lead safe, meaningful and vibrant lives in the community. Without them, this country simply could not even begin to meet the needs of the I/DD population.
While DSPs were in short supply prior to the pandemic, many burned out during the pandemic, and today we have even fewer in the profession.
We have a DSP shortage crisis that cannot be resolved unless the state and federal governments act now. Already facing increased risk due to conditions created by the COVID-19, our I/DD workforce face an ongoing and insidious danger to their health and well-being.
Many people with I/DD who need in-person care lost their trained support during the pandemic at a time when many I/DD service providers already faced an acute DSP shortage. Pre-pandemic, approximately 46% of DSP positions turned over annually. In other words, service providers had to replace nearly half of this workforce every year to meet the needs of the I/DD population. During the pandemic, the situation has gotten far worse. Those with I/DD in Pennsylvania, for example, saw their services reduced by up to 80% since March 2020.
Government funds I/DD services through non-profit human services organizations, and therefore essentially sets the rates for DSP compensation. At starting rates of less than $11/hour in Pennsylvania, compensation remains inadequately matched to the levels of intensity, risk, and daily demands of a DSP worker. Most retail and fast-food restaurants provide higher compensation options with far less difficult working conditions than that of DSPs who must often work with people with intensive needs or behaviors, and without the ongoing responsibility and care of someone else’s life. For-profit companies can often pay a higher hourly rate, by increasing prices. Non-profit human services organizations are not in a position to do that, as they rely on government to support them.
Until government dramatically increases support to providers so they in turn can appropriately compensate DSPs, those with I/DD will suffer the consequences of inadequate support and staff turn-over. Luckily some states like New Jersey have increased their level of funding to support a minimum wage for DSPs and other direct care givers of $15/hourly.
Tine Hansen-Turton is President and CEO of Woods Services and a member of the Inquirer’s Health Advisory Board Panel. Mike Clark is a Policy Fellow at Woods Services