Fixing the disability workforce crisis

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Imagine you’re a person with an intellectual or developmental disability. You’re working toward living a full, independent life.

Perhaps you rely on support services to accomplish daily tasks, develop skills and prepare for the job market, or attain other personal goals. Your opportunities to thrive depend on stability, and strong relationships with the professional service providers who work with you, know you and have earned your trust.

Now consider that the turnover rate for individuals providing these support services in states across the country averages a staggering 43.8 percent.

That’s the emergency we’re facing, according to new data from the Case for Inclusion 2020, a report from the ANCOR Foundation and United Cerebral Palsy. The data present a workforce in crisis, plagued by low wages and high turnover and vacancy rates in states across the country.

One of us is an elected representative in a state where thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) rely on and need these critical services. One of us is a professional in the direct support field, with 19 years of experience working day-in and day-out with the I/DD community, and has seen the challenges of a workforce shortage and high turnover firsthand.

Here in Connecticut, turnover in the field of Direct Support Professionals (DSPs)—the pivotal workers who support people with I/DD in daily life and even with taking part in civic duties, like voting—is at a disconcerting 31 percent. We’re doing better than the national average, but still grapple with a turnover rate that would be considered egregious in any other industry.

Now zoom out nationally, where the picture shows an even more dire crisis. States like Nebraska, South Dakota, and Oklahoma are seeing DSP turnover rates well above 50 percent. A whopping 50 percent of DSPs who left their job in 2017 were employed for less than a year, providing scarce time to develop critical relationships with the people they support. And high turnover is accompanied by troubling vacancy rates that average 8.1 percent for full-time positions, and 17.3 percent for part-time positions. Imagine a revolving door of new, often less-experienced service providers—as well as gaps where no one is available at all.

That’s why we need to invest in this workforce through improved training programs to encourage long-term employment and skill development that earns a sustainable wage. This problem is only getting worse. The need for a skilled direct care workforce is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. By 2026, the industry will need almost 50 percent more DSPs than are needed today. And, as we know, the number of DSPs we have today is far from sufficient.

DSPs need a career trajectory that includes opportunities for growth, specialization, and benefits. Right now, the DSPs reach a career zenith but often don’t have opportunities to earn more commensurate with their experience.

This workforce also deserves public recognition for the important role they play in caring for our family members, friends, and neighbors. Much of their work takes place in people’s homes, but is paid for by public funds through Medicaid. At a time when Medicaid funding is under attack at the federal level and state budgets are under strain, slashing this funding can seem like an easy target until you understand the vital role that this workforce plays in enabling individuals with I/DD to live fulfilling and productive lives.

As a nation, we have the opportunity to make incredible strides in helping DSPs build long-term careers, improving the lives of individuals with I/DD and allowing community-based providers the opportunity to succeed. A fresh investment in this workforce today will go a long way towards preventing serious care shortages issues in the future.

The Honorable Joe Courtney is the representative for Connecticut’s 2nd District. Shanna York is a direct support professional working at Hartford, Conn.-based Oak Hill, the state’s largest provider of services to individuals with disabilities.

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