Community supports and for people with disabilities emerged as a growing field of work in the 1970s and has continued ever since. Throughout the last forty years, DSPs have been, and remain, the backbone of this system. In the 1970s we used to compare the wages paid to DSPs to the wages earned by fast food workers. Sadly, in 2017 this remains true.
When we look at the monumental efforts made by states over the years to increase working conditions for DSPs, there have been tremendous successes; yet, there has been little sustainability. Increases to wages frequently were unaccompanied by increased resources for other costs associated with community programs. States failed to recognize the impending growth and need for community supports, thinking one massive influx of cash would fix the issue forever.
Community supports for people with disabilities are a lifelong proposition. There is little to no attrition similar to other human service programs. Elders die. Youth attain the age of majority. Children with disabilities, however, grown into young adults, and support needs continue through the lifespan. It took years for state legislatures to realize just how large a population people with disabilities is; and, once they did, they struggled with the best way to keep funding current.
Today, nearly half of our states are struggling with chronic budget deficits. Pennsylvania and Connecticut are operating without a budget approved by the legislature and signed by their governors. Illinois has its first approved budget in over three years. Even in states passing wage initiatives, ANCOR members struggle to find applicants for jobs paying little more than those paid in fast food or retail settings.
Those of us who have worked to improve the lives of people with disabilities and the DSPs supporting them have witnessed forty years of effort. We can recall campaigns, legislative initiatives, minimum wage hikes, and overtime rules with clarity, yet the reality is we continue to struggle to pay DSPs a reasonable living wage. After forty years, we should figure out what we need to do differently to advance conditions for our workforce apart from just asking for more money.
Money will always be helpful, but perhaps we should also be asking what the data show. We know in states where credentialing is adopted turnover is lower, retention is higher, and quality is better. Yet, we have declined to pursue credentialing on a grand scale siting the need for people with disabilities to be able to hire whomever they would like to support them. We are among the only human service sectors lacking educational requirements beyond a high school diploma. Would creating established criteria for education, credentials, and a career ladder spur options for DSPs? Looking at other human service sectors, the answer is most likely, yes.
ANCOR is pursuing a standard occupational classification (SOC) for DSPs with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. SOCs stands for standard occupational classifications, which are categories that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses to divide the entire U.S. workforce when collecting data from employers. These data are used to measure trends and activity in the labor market and play an important part in informing public and private decision-making – such as predicting potential labor shortages.
There are SOCs for home health aides and personal care aides, and while these positions have some overlap with DSPs, descriptions meant for other fields do not adequately capture the full scope and complexity of the DSP occupation.
By providing data more accurately reflecting the job market, a SOC for DSPs will help state and federal agencies better understand a workforce that is facing explosive demand at a time when recruitment and retention are low, with a 45 percent national turnover rate. Additionally, state and federal agencies need a stronger understanding of DSP duties, working conditions, and labor costs and a DSP SOC is crucial to developing reimbursement rates and policies affecting our workforce. Ideally, this improved data will lead to decisions increasing employment nationwide in a sector vital to the health and survival of people with IDD.
ANCOR is asking Congressional representatives to sign onto a letter to the Bureau of Labor Statistics requesting they establish an independent classification for Direct Support Professionals and to begin collecting the vital data needed to assess job responsibilities, comparability of wages with other professions, and training requirements. If you haven’t already asked your representatives to sign onto this important effort, let us know and we will get the necessary materials to you.
Something has to change the way we approach supporting the workforce in community programs for people with disabilities. Establishing a Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) for DSPs is one such way.
Diane McComb is ANCOR’s liaison to the State Association Executives Forum. She can be reached at [email protected].