The human services industry has been experiencing a workforce shortage for the past 30 years. We are now in crisis mode. Nationwide, there is a 45% average turnover rate for Direct Support Professionals (DSP’s) who provide essential services to people with disabilities.
Factor in that from 2016 to 2060, the number of adults aged 65 and older will nearly double from 49 to 95 million. One-in-four Americans will be at least 65 years old by 2060 and the life expectancy of people with disabilities will increase. Our aging population, coupled with increased life expectancy for people with disabilities is set to collide with the prospect that there will not be enough DSPs to support this most vulnerable population.
Fewer people are moving into the DSP workforce due to the low wages, poor access to health insurance, difficult schedules and the lack other benefits. It’s a high stress job that requires significant training and preparation for a very demanding role. Yet skilled DSP’s have not been given the professional status and recognition they deserve.
So how are we going to attract, retain and pay for the more than one million new DSP positions that are estimated to be needed by the year 2022, and address the long-term care demands for an aging population?
There will always be a small segment of wealthy individuals able to hire whoever they want because they pay high wages, but the vast majority of providers and individuals will be trying to find a great person who is willing to work for a wage that is really not that great.
This is what a crisis looks like as all of us will soon be competing with each other for professional care workers.
Notice I used the word “professional” care. That word – by omission — is the root cause of the problem we have today.
For reasons that defy both common sense and decency, government legislators who fund provider agency wages refuse to acknowledge DSP’s as professionals. In many cases, their pay is commensurate with that of a 16-year old working as a fast-food employee.
Half of the DSP workforce relies on government funded and means-tested benefits and most are working extensive overtime or two or three jobs to provide a living wage for their family.
With all due respect to the honorable work provided by fast food workers, there is a huge difference between the skills needed to flip hamburgers and bag fries, versus giving insulin shots and being responsible for critical decision-making, including the education, health and safety of a person with a disability who is now living in the community.
The workforce crisis also stems from federal policy changes regarding service models that increase the demand for DSP’s without increasing funding. In most cases, day centers, where groups of individuals with disabilities congregated in a specific place for daily activities, have been replaced by community-based supports. Providing community-based supports and activities requires a higher number of DSP’s. While there was a time when one DSP may have been supervising 15 individuals in a facility, community participation often requires one DSP for a small group of three people being supported as part of their community.
While we applaud the movement away from facility-based programs, it has created the need for many additional DSP’s. Government funding has not adequately incorporated that mandated increased spend into their budgets and by law we cannot pass along these costs to the people we support. That is why we continually find ourselves in the position of playing “catch up” and trying to educate policy makers about the role and value of DSP’s.
In light of these challenges, at Penn-Mar we are doing all we can to invest in our DSP’s career development. While there are many attempting to attract and hold on to the most qualified DSPs, we will continue to do all we can to create differentiators that are not based solely on finances. We cannot expect to constantly outbid the competition for team members, but we can do everything possible to ensure we are affirming their value.
We are also committed to ensuring that the decision-makers in Congress at the state and federal levels also understand the importance of affirming the value of DSP’s. Continuing to get this wrong from a public policy and funding perspective will lead to very unacceptable outcomes.
The men and women with disabilities we support must be surrounded by competent and caring team members. They deserve nothing less. And while we recognize innovation will fuel how supports are provided in the future, there will never be a substitute for strong, healthy relationships. After all, isn’t that what all of us really want in our lives?