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Another Voice: Support professionals for people with disabilities are underpaid

By Kathy Bunce

Over the past 10 years, families across the state have been asking for relief. Repeated calls, letters, visits and position papers have outlined the increasing concern that the system serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities was eroding.

Now we are at a serious tipping point. Turnover and vacancies for direct support professionals are reaching dangerous levels. Last year, more than 12 million overtime hours were paid to DSPs due to the lack of available workers.

Nonprofit organizations provide day-to-day care for most of the 130,000 New York State residents with developmental disabilities who are unable to live independently, at no fault of their own. The governor’s plan to increase the minimum wage, while reducing the dollars dedicated to these services, has created a significant workforce challenge, locally and across the state.

As an illustration, in 2004, respite workers employed by a local nonprofit agency earned $9 per hour, while the state minimum wage was $5.50. Now, workers providing in-home respite care or after-school respite care earn only $10.86 per hour, while the starting wage at fast food restaurants is $15. The level of responsibility is not commensurate.

For the past 10 years, we have seen repeated cuts to the overall budget for services funded through New York State, despite a steady increase in people who are dependent upon these services. Staffing for group homes, day programs and respite programs assisting people with personal care and activities of daily living is provided by a small army of dedicated people, with wages well below the national poverty level.

In 2004, the same jobs, largely underwritten by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, paid 45 percent more than minimum wage. Now, they are barely on par with minimum wage. None of these jobs should be compared to minimum wage jobs.

DSPs assume tremendous responsibility, often working multiple shifts to provide compassionate care to people who are dependent upon them for meeting their every need. Lifting, feeding, bathing, dressing, administering medication, oxygen, planning and preparing meals for those with allergies and complex health issues requires commitment, understanding and adherence to health and safety protocols. Teaching life skills, practicing emergency plans, providing companionship and delivering physical and behavior supports every day with dignity and compassion requires patience and consistency.

Most DSPs must work a second job to provide for their family. Many reluctantly leave the field, and leave the people that depend upon them, simply because they do not earn a living wage.

It is time to show people with disabilities, and the dedicated people supporting them that they are valued. The state should fund these positions well above minimum wage so we don’t continue to lose great people.

Kathy Bunce is co-chair of the family committee of the Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western New York.

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