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Direct Support & Professional Workforce

In Support of Direct Support & Professional Workforce

A message from the desk of Dan Burke

I am writing this month to take the opportunity to recognize an essential group of people who are so important in the lives of the people that Lifeworks and The Arc of South Norfolk support: our direct support professionals (DSPs), frontline management and support staff.

Family members, employers, supporters and people we serve often stop me or call me to comment about the tremendous group of people who work at The Arc and Lifeworks.  Their appreciation for the dedication, caring, flexibility and support provided by each of our staff is inspiring.  The services and supports provided by our professional staff are essential to the lives of so many people in our community.

These staff fulfill many roles – case manager, teacher-counselor, job coach, assistant case manager, van driver, overnight staff and the substitute staff often referred to as relief staff. They support people with disabilities in activities of daily living such as dressing, cooking, shopping, personal care such as toileting and bathing, medication management, and ensuring medical care.  They also serve as bridge builders to the community for the people we serve, by supporting a person in a job, participating in social activities, and ensuring an active daily life through nutrition, wellness and exercise.  They support our individuals in utilizing local resources and becoming active members of their communities.

Our direct support staff are supported by a great group of frontline managers, including program managers and program coordinators who lead their homes and programs each and every day. Their active leadership and role in the management of their programs greatly enhances the lives of the people we support.  In their roles, they not only serve as leaders but also provide direct support each and every day to the people we serve.  As a colleague, I have great admiration for this wonderful group of staff.  I am most fortunate to have started my career as a DSP here at the Arc and Lifeworks.

I am writing today not only to thank and credit our staff but also as a call to action for all of us.  The Arc and Lifeworks, along with 150 other agencies who support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our Commonwealth, are facing a crisis – a workforce crisis that affects all of us, including employers such as our agencies and families who employ people in their homes with people we serve.

This crisis is reflected in the low number of people who are responding to our advertising for professional staff as well as the high turnover rate in the human services field on both the state and national levels.  The Arc and Lifeworks have a turnover rate in DSPs of about 25% and a job vacancy rate that averages around 10%.  Compare this to national averages of up to 46% and one would think we are in a good position.  But upon closer inspection, we are seeking to hire staff in a geographical area that has a 3.3% unemployment rate, one of the highest costs of living in the country, and high rates of student loan debt.  Currently, only one in 10 people who call about a job posting end up interviewing with agencies like ours and taking a job in our field.

Many of our staff must work two and three jobs to support their families and often they work two jobs and still go to school to further their education.  There are many reasons why people may or may not work in our field, but the overriding issue is salary. We are in a field in which our agency, along with many others, depend on public funding levels and staff recognize this incredible need.

In light of this, I urge you to join us in supporting a statewide initiative begun by The Arc of Massachusetts to address the workforce crisis.  The Arc of Massachusetts seeks passage of a workforce bill filed in the state Legislature (HD 1130, “An Act relative to meeting the human services workforce demand”). The bill, sponsored by Rep. Denise Garlick and Sen. Barry Finegold, among many others, seeks to raise salaries to a starting salary based on $17 per hour, with market adjustments for people already at that level and adjustments recognizing workers’ important responsibilities.

Increased pay is not the only answer; we need to do a great deal more to recognize the value of the work done by these incredible people and to understand that the supports we provide to the people we serve is best enhanced by having consistent staff and a lower turnover rate.  An industry that continues to be plagued by this type of turnover rate and vacancy rate will have harmful consequences for the people we support, their families and our communities.

In closing, I think it is important for all of us to recognize that The Arc and Lifeworks are organizations based on people supporting people!  We must do all we can to recognize, recruit and support the essential lifeline of our services which is the great care provided by our staff.

I invite you to go the Arc of Massachusetts website and go to the link for Workforce Initiative.  Or more importantly, please reach out to your local senator and representative and ask them to support House Docket #1130.

Finally, please take a minute the next time you are in one of our programs, visiting a home or meeting staff in our community and thank them!  On behalf of our Boards of Directors, our leadership teams and the people we support, thank you to our staff for all you do.