Terribly underfunded, Massachusetts’ social services sector cannot pay a living wage to workers who support people with developmental disabilities (Guest Viewpoint)

The families of those affected intellectual and developmental disabilities have made huge sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Day programs that serve these people were closed during the early part of the pandemic and have had limited capacity more recently due to labor issues.

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

In many ways, the state’s system of social service providers has functioned much like a sixth man in basketball: a provider of essential, life-saving care to those in need while enjoying less visibility and notoriety as first responders, hospital workers and other healthcare professionals. .

Direct support staff must be attentive to all the social and medical needs of the people they serve. This includes: assisting with bathing, toileting and toileting, including in some cases the use of a lift to move people; monitor dietary restrictions, diet and eliminate choking hazards; help with ambulation by accompanying people when they use a walker or by pushing them in a wheelchair; and provide around-the-clock companionship and support.

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

Running a human services agency means hearing countless stories of direct support professionals who decide they can no longer work the extra shifts or second and third jobs just to pay their bills. We have employees who quit their jobs to work in 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 that they have to leave the job they love to do work that means a lot less to them.

The recent surge in consumer inflation and soaring fuel prices, as well as the out of control real estate market, only add to the challenge. Paying $6 for a dozen eggs or more than $4 for a gallon of gas makes anyone question their economic viability, as does receiving a notice from your landlord that your rent has increased by hundreds of dollars. Drifting away only 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 this position. After serving our clients for 19 years, his hourly salary was $23 – just under $48,000 for a career dedicated to caregiving. This is the highest salary we are allowed to pay for his position under the state reimbursement formula.

In some cases, our employees actually earn less than the people with IDD they transport to work. We’re thrilled that those we serve are finally earning respectable salaries, but something’s wrong when they earn more than the staff that nurtures their independence and makes their work possible.

The work of our direct support professionals saves us all money in the long run. The services they provide provide independence for people with IDD and create economic opportunity by allowing parents and other family members to go to work knowing that their loved one’s needs are being met. These services also obviate the need for services in more expensive and less dignified settings, such as hospitals or shelters. Some of the people we serve would otherwise be homeless.

We need the state to invest $581 million in a special fund that will allow providers to pay $20 an hour for direct care jobs and stay competitive in the workplace. We simply cannot recruit competent and qualified staff at current rates. The Governor’s and House’s versions of the state budget for fiscal year 2023 fall short of $351 million to meet that target. We urge the Senate to recognize this critical moment and fully fund the social services workforce.

The churn of social service workers does not benefit anyone.

The alternative to increased funding – doing nothing – will assure us of an understaffed system that fails to provide people with intellectual and developmental disabilities the engagement, support and services they need. 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 mind.

The reality is that we have been asked to do more with less for too long, and we have crossed the threshold into unsustainability. Swift action is needed from our policy makers to ensure direct social service support staff are there to care for the vulnerable populations who depend on us.

Sean M. Rose, M.Ed. is President and Chief Executive Officer of Prosperous support and advocacy in Marlborough and Worcester.

Michael A. Bynum