Human service workers deserve better pay

They came through for us; we need to come through for them

HUMAN SERVICES professionals were among the essential workers as the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on our region and nation a little over a year ago. These employees, who care for some of our Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents, were unable to work remotely or transition to Zoom meetings.

Those working in residential programs crafted new programming to keep children, youth, and adults – all of whom were suddenly disconnected from families and the outside world – engaged and safe. They did more than what was asked of them to keep critical services in place for children in need of safe placements and for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illness, or substance use disorders.

They kept the doors open for thousands experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, or elder abuse, and they greatly helped our veterans in need. Many working in settings that did shut down became – literally overnight – residential care staff to relieve their overworked colleagues, often with little PPE or knowledge of the virus. Staff serving children provided educational support to kids learning remotely.

These dedicated professionals came through in a moment of unparalleled crisis to keep our community’s loved ones safe, contented, and largely free of COVID-19. Now, 16 months into the pandemic, it is time that we come together to support these critical workers and ensure that they receive the fair compensation to which they are entitled.

Fair compensation is not a new issue. The Donahue Institute at UMass – in a report commissioned by the Providers’ Council – studied the human services sector in 2018 and noted median human services wages were $27,376, compared with $40,557 for all Massachusetts workers – a difference of 48 percent.

Many human services employees have college – and graduate – degrees, and they are saddled with educational debt, all while earning a wage that is not truly livable. If the human services sector is to have a future, we must also have the ability to help these essential workers pay down their educational debt. Otherwise, they will be precluded from working in the profession, no matter how much they believe in the mission.

Support for these employees in the form of supplemental pay and student loan assistance is not only appropriate; it is an essential means to guarantee an adequate workforce. Consider two alarming statistics from a recent survey by the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers:

  • Nearly a third of day habilitation providers responding said that they have a staff vacancy rate of over 40 percent; and
  • More than 80 percent of these same respondents said they are maintaining program waitlists due to the lack of staff.

We appreciate that while workers in other sectors are providing vital goods and services, many work without the immense risk involved in caring for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. Some of the people we care for have profound disabilities; some have limited communication and others don’t walk.

Many individuals need help feeding, bathing, going to the toilet, and dressing themselves. Some experience serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or seek recovery from addiction. Some need a shelter because they and their children are fleeing to save their lives. Or they may be one of the thousands of older residents needing someone to make sure they are eating, taking their medications, and are safe.

Human services providers have transformed the landscape for people needing our society’s safety net. It was only a few decades ago that many individuals were forced to languish in state institutions.  They had little opportunity to live their best life and become gainfully employed as well. Many people we serve today have jobs in the community.  We owe it to our most vulnerable to ensure an adequate workforce to care for and support them.

Meet the Author

Ellen Attaliades

President and CEO, Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers
Meet the Author

Lydia Conley

President and CEO, Association for Behavioral Health Care
Meet the Author

Tammy Mello

Executive director, Children's League of Massachusetts
Meet the Author

Michael Weekes

President and CEO, Providers' Council
We call on the Legislature to make a long-term, structural investment in the human services sector to enable livable wages and help our essential staff with their significant educational debt. This will ensure we can retain the employees that we do have and even recruit more workers into the sector.

Ellen Attaliades is president & CEO of the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers.  Lydia Conley is president & CEO of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare.  Tammy Mello is executive director of Children’s League of Massachusetts.  Michael Weekes is president & CEO of the Providers’ Council.