Living wage needed for human service workers

Their lives are on the line every day

THROUGHOUT THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic, we have heralded the selfless heroism of our health care workforce and first responders.  The doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, EMTs, firefighters, and police continue to rise to the challenges we face, and we are awed by their performance and are forever grateful.

But there is another group of heroes we must add to the list to thank – our human services direct support professionals (DSPs), people who work with individuals with significant disabilities and other life challenges to ensure our most vulnerable children and adults are physically and emotionally well.

These professionals are quietly doing their jobs, with added responsibilities and heightened risk, only they are not as visible because their work is integrated into community-based settings.  They provide individualized supports and services in the most dignified ways – just as you and I would expect. As we work to emerge safely from this pandemic, we must step up and justly compensate this group of DSP heroes, as we justly compensate our health care workers and first responders, because their lives are also on the line every day.

The needs are complex for the populations DSPs support.  Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, mental health challenges, autism, or brain injury often have co-occurring complex medical conditions. These populations are cared for by a workforce that provides everything from social supports to complex skilled nursing care. This care is provided in community-based settings, homes supported by provider agencies, or in the homes of aging parents.

The care provided is multi-faceted, requiring a vast skill set and management of the whole person’s wellness; emotional, intellectual, physical, social, spiritual, and vocational.  Unfortunately, the compensation for these professionals has not been aligned with the whole-person care that they provide.

In our country, our human service workforce is shrinking while the demand for services continues to increase. Because the responsibilities of the job do not correlate with the compensation, successful recruiting for these positions is extremely difficult. The turnover is enormous , roughly 45 percent in the US.

The staff churn is extremely difficult for supported individuals who struggle with the constant change in caregivers.  This growing crisis is due to several factors, the most significant being inadequate state and federal funding to human service provider agencies, all while our nation’s population of elderly and people with disabilities is growing.

David Jordan, president of the Seven Hills Foundation of Worcester.

In Massachusetts, median wages for the DSP human services workforce are just over $27,000, compared with a median wage of $40,500 for all other industries in the state. We must work to ensure that the lowest paid human services workers receive a livable wage commensurate with the critical services and specialized care that they provide. By compensating our DSPs at such low rates, we have set up a scenario where they are “less than” – and this is simply unacceptable.

DSPs are the backbone of our human services workforce and to not recognize and value their place as heroes in the health care sector simply perpetuates the notion that individuals with disabilities are not fully valued in our society.

We have passed laws to foster inclusion, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Supreme Court has validated those principals through its decision on the Olmstead case in 1999, which ensured an individual’s right to live in the community when appropriate.

We need to continue to ensure that all Americans will have the supports they need – regardless of the extent of any disability or impairment – to live in the community and direct their services, and this can only be done if we can provide the workforce needed to achieve their goals. It is up to us to provide equity not only for the individuals receiving services, but equity for the professional workforce providing the

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and their respective administrations have been exceptional during this crisis. They have shown steadfast leadership that is needed to protect the health of our citizens while guiding a complex public health and economic response.  After recognizing the importance of our vital DSP workforce and the perils of their work, both Massachusetts and Rhode Island made additional funding available to enhance the salaries of these employees.

Though greatly needed and valued, the commitment to the additional funding by both states ends in June. What happens then?

We need Baker and Raimondo to make permanent the current supplemental hourly pay to DSPs and commit to a path toward establishing a “living wage” for the profession.  It is time to sound the call to keep these salary enhancements in place as COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacies of reimbursement for this workforce.

Meet the Author

David A Jordan

President, Seven Hills Foundation
Let’s come together to secure the funding and pay a living wage that honors our human services professionals.

Dr. David A. Jordan is the president of Seven Hills Foundation of Worcester, which offers support and services to 45,000 children, adults, and seniors with disabilities and other life challenges at 160 locations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. For more information, click here.