Mark Davis: Direct support professionals Pa.’s largest workforce crisis |
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Mark Davis: Direct support professionals Pa.’s largest workforce crisis

Two out of five workers who care for people with an intellectual disability or autism (called direct support professionals, or DSPs) leave their jobs every year, largely due to the cripplingly low wages they are paid through government funding.

Recently, the 2019 version of the Fix the DSP Crisis video was released, showing how the devastating impact of the DSP workforce crisis has continued to worsen.

The video, originally aired in 2017, shows the stories of Joe and Keya, two DSPs who love their jobs supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities or autism, yet who struggle financially because of their jobs. The 2019 version reveals the devastating update that both Joe and Keya left the jobs they love as DSPs because they couldn’t make ends meet.

DSPs provide hands-on supports and services to Pennsylvanians with autism or intellectual disabilities. Their work is complex, nuanced and skilled — supporting community activities, teaching hygiene, administering medications and caring for other medical needs, providing transportation, offering employment supports, and helping people live in their communities.

Over the last few decades, as individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities have transitioned away from isolated settings in state-run institutions to privately run providers within the community, funding for community-based services has not matched the commitment that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania made to these individuals when our society began the transition in the 1960s. The result is horrifyingly low wages for the workers who support these valuable and vulnerable members of our community — wages that force many workers to live in poverty despite working long hours of overtime and often multiple jobs — and a devastating workforce crisis that threatens the viability of community-based services for people with autism or an intellectual disability. In 2018, 38% of staff turned over (more than 20,000 positions), and 20% of positions were left vacant (more than 13,000 positions), as noted in the 2019 Fix the DSP Crisis video.

The 2018 Pennsylvania DSP Compensation Study showed that providers are good stewards of the funding allocated by the government. The 2017-18 state budget included the first rate increase for these services in 10 years, which was a direct outcome of intense advocacy from this community all over the state. As a result of that advocacy, as well as a commitment from the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf, 90% of DSPs received an average of a $1 hourly wage increase. This was a huge achievement, yet wages are still not adequate, and the 2018 DSP Compensation Study revealed that the increase was not enough to prevent the DSP workforce crisis from deepening.

The opportunity to help Fix the DSP Crisis with additional funding is with the General Assembly this year again. These services are almost 100% funded by government. I urge our Pennsylvania legislators to watch the 2019 Fix the DSP Crisis video and include funding in this year’s budget to raise DSP wages and help Fix the DSP Crisis.

Mark Davis is president and CEO of Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability.

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