Overlooked and Underfunded, Direct Support Professionals Deserve Our Attention and a Living Wage
Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) provide essential, life-supporting services for New Yorkers with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Unfortunately, for the last decade, consistent underfunding of nonprofit I/DD provider agencies has led to a workforce crisis, as wage stagnation has undercut staff retention efforts and driven workers from the field. The staff vacancy rate remains 42 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels, an unsustainable trend and status quo for our state. This shortage causes direct harm to New Yorkers who rely on DSP support and have the right to live lives that the rest of us take for granted.
It is critical that New York State increase funding for this essential sector of our state’s workforce to recruit and retain trained staff. We are calling on the New York Senate and Assembly to pass bills S.4127 and A.5268, which will establish a Direct Support Wage Enhancement (DSWE). A DSWE will enable provider agencies to increase the hourly pay rate for these essential workers who support New Yorkers with I/DD.
As chairs of the Senate Committee on Disabilities and the Assembly Committee of the People with Disabilities, we recognize the crucial role of DSPs in supporting individuals with I/DD to live safe, independent, fulfilling lives. These highly skilled workers ensure that individuals with I/DD receive practical, administrative, social, emotional, health, and psychological support. DSPs improve quality of life through a range of services, from giving first aid and CPR to administering medications and providing transportation. These indispensable workers are integral pillars of support, yet they barely make above a minimum living wage.
This year, human service providers received a hard-fought 4 percent human services cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA). Unfortunately, this COLA was less than half of what inflation had been over the past year. Without a separate investment to provide competitive wages, agencies face forced cuts to vital supports and services to remain viable.
According to preliminary data that is being collected by the nonprofit provider agencies, seventy percent of DSPs are stressed about meeting their own basic bills, and forty-four percent worry their food won’t last until their next paycheck. A majority of these workers—nearly 72 percent—are women, and approximately 63 percent are Black or Latino. In the current environment, they cannot support their families working in the I/DD sector.
These economic stresses force many DSPs to leave the field and the people they love. The annual turnover rate for agencies statewide is a staggering 30 percent. Workers are leaving to work in retail, fast-food or home care, and many other sectors, which provide higher pay and require less training. Staff turnover costs provider agencies more than $100 million annually. Currently, nearly 20 percent or almost 20,000 direct support positions remain vacant in nonprofit agencies across New York States. The high turnover rate and vacant staff positions leave New Yorkers with I/DD without essential support. This lack of support and services can have a devastating impact on these New Yorkers and their families.
Permanent investment in DSPs’ salaries is critical for agencies to recruit and retain staff. Through a DSWE, provider agencies would receive an annual funding allocation of $4,000, or $2.19 per hour, per employee who provides direct care support and services. This funding is needed to Keep DSP salaries above minimum wage.
We must provide wages that recognize these highly trained and skilled DSPs if we want to increase recruitment and retention for this already depleted workforce.
As state leaders, we must invest in the historically underfunded nonprofit I/DD provider sector and all those who provide essential care for the most vulnerable members of our community. Establishing a DSWE offers a path to solve the DSP workforce crisis and stem losses from historical underfunding. By passing bills S4127 and A5268, we can ensure that DSP workers, individuals with I/DD, and their families can live the lives they rightfully deserve.
Senator John Mannion is Chairman of the Committee on Disabilities. Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright is Chair of the People with Disabilities Committee.