In the midst of all the uncertainties that come with the COVID-19 virus, a faltering economy, and social justice movements, even the experts are often at a loss for answers.
But here at Penn-Mar, we need to have a good answer to the most important question we are asked everyday by the people with disabilities that we support: “Who is going to help me today?”
During these times when everyone’s attention is understandably focused elsewhere, it is easy to forget that we are here. But our work continues, 24/7, under extremely difficult circumstances.
Answering the call are our Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) who have chosen to work with people with disabilities who are depending on them to help create their best life. Our ability to recruit and retain DSPs is essential to ensure the fullness of life for the people we support.
Before COVID, the DSP annual turnover at Penn-Mar was 25%. The national rate is a whopping 40%. So, 4 out of 10 relationships – vital to the quality of support people with disabilities receive – are severed annually.
High on the list for the reasons for this turnover is our inability to pay DSPs for the value of their service. This field attracts people with big hearts and solid work ethics. Falling Medicaid funding from the states is not providing them with a living wage.
Thanks to a generous gift from Jim Pitts and his family, we were able to establish an endowment fund in the name of their son Michael to help our DSPs earn credentialing and higher salary levels. This program has significantly reduced turnover.
Jim and I recently participated in a radio show called “On the Record” hosted by Sheilah Kast at WYPR.org. The discussion focused on the pandemic and the safety restrictions to control it that have had a big impact on people with disabilities and the organizations that serve them. There are really two concerns: the attention of public policy being diverted and budget cuts in disabilities support as states are experiencing a tremendous loss of revenue.
Jim’s 43-year-old son, Michael Pitts, has been in a residential home since he was 8 years old. Michael has severe disabilities with intractable seizures and heart issues. Jim describes his son as “a happy, loving man who is ambulatory and has had a great quality of life during his 10-plus years with Penn-Mar.” Stability in his support team has made a huge difference.
When the discussion turned to the pending 4% cost of living increase for DSPs in Maryland (at the time it was in jeopardy of being cut, and may still be in danger depending budget deficits this fall), Jim said, “My view of the world with a disabled son is that the state and federal government ought to be prioritizing those . . . who do not have ability to advocate for themselves. This is the bottom of the safety net . . . they need professional help to enhance their quality of life. DSPs deserve to have their career professionalized and valued. These are hands-on people impacting lives directly.”
Penn-Mar’s work is all about ensuring that all people have opportunities, regardless of circumstance, and we are reliant upon our government to recognize the importance of this work. It should be the state’s highest priority to take care of our most vulnerable citizens.
So while COVID-19 has made budgets more challenging than ever, we cannot stop fighting for the people we support and the important work that happens here every day.
Nor can we depend on traditional sources of funding alone.
We need you, too. Now more than ever.