Direct Support Workforce Crisis
with Peter Berns of The Arc
Businesses across all industries are experiencing worker shortages — including the healthcare and disability services industry that relies on direct service providers.
Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, joins host Tetiana Anderson to outline the importance of critical care services and their impact on not only seniors and people with disabilities, but for all.
November 30, 2021
Anderson: On October 7, 2021, disability rights advocates gathered outside the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. They were there for the Care Can't Wait storytelling vigil. Participants in the 24-hour vigil shared the stories of people whose lives were impacted by the lack of home- and community-based services. They also advocated for increased funding to ensure the health and well-being of people with disabilities. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. A gap in funding is only part of the story. A shortage of workers is being felt by businesses across all industries. And for home healthcare and disability services, which is reliant on direct providers, it exacerbates the situation that existed pre-pandemic. One report found that 92% of firms are struggling with recruitment and retention of direct service providers. Joining me to talk about all of this is Peter Berns, CEO of the Arc. And, Peter, thanks for joining us again.
Berns: It's great to be with you, Tetiana.
Anderson: So, you know, Peter, this issue has been ongoing, but I know you say that it's more urgent than ever. Why do you say that?
Berns: So, The Arc is a nationwide disability rights and services organization. We have 600 chapters around the country that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live in their communities. And the services are threatened because the care infrastructure in this country is in tatters. And one of the core problems is that there is a critical shortage of direct support professionals. These are the people who work with people with disabilities in all aspects of their lives, everything from personal care like bathing and dressing, to assisting with food preparation and medication management, household management, transportation, employment services like job search and job coaching. And it's an essential workforce that's predominantly women and people of color, including many recent immigrants. And what we hear from all across the country is that our chapters are just struggling and other disability service providers are just struggling to hire and retain enough workers to provide the services that people need.
Anderson: So, we're not only talking about a shortage of workers across all industries in this nation -- we're also talking about a pay disparity with specific impact to direct care service providers. And I know that depending on the state, some states have increased pay for service providers who are working for the state, but not for professionals who are working with private companies. What do you make of that?
Berns: Well, the the problem is twofold. One, it is that the wages are too low, and two, it is that there is competition. You know, these jobs require a high level of skills and diverse abilities, and they're paid very low wages. The national median is only about $11 an hour, which is a huge part of the problem. So providers, you know, that directly employ DSPs, we call them, are reporting that they can't compete with the fast food industry, big-box retail or with Amazon, where employers can get paid more for much less, much less challenging work. And when the state comes in and says we're gonna pay our workers in state facilities more than the nonprofits can pay, well, that even makes the competition even worse.
Anderson: And we know that regardless of the increased workloads that are created by this worker shortage, as well as the low pay, there are some direct care service providers who are able to continue to work and want to continue to work. Who are some of these folks and what's their motivation?
Berns: Yeah, we have some wonderful direct support workers all throughout the Arc network. And, you know, recently I met a woman whose name is Betty. She supports five women living in a group home operated by The Arc of Alachua County, Florida. And she's been working with these women for 19 years. They have a variety of levels of support needs, and she loves going to work with these folks. It brings joy to her life, even when she's having a bad day. And she's stayed with this work for such a long period of time because it is so meaningful to her, and she really considers these women to be a part of her family. And she also knows and is concerned about the fact that when there is turnover among other staff, it's really upsetting to them and it really impacts and undermines their ability to live the kind of lives they want to have.
Anderson: A lot of this is about what legislation is happening, what politicians are doing. What do you want to say to those legislators and those politicians now and in the future about why these critical care services are so important not only for the people they serve, but really for all of us?
Berns: We've got to invest in a care infrastructure. We've got to increase funding for home- and community-based services and increase the wages for direct support workers. And because ultimately, it's about the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And, you know, people like Susan, a woman with cerebral palsy in Ohio who had been living with her -- in her family home and had to move out to a long-term care facility because they weren't able to keep the direct support workers that they needed for her to live in the family home. And Susan is happy where she's living now, but she wants to move back out and into the community and really have control over her own life, and we need the workforce to support that happening.
Anderson: This is all about real people. And, Peter, if folks want to find out more about the work that you do, what's the website?
Berns: Come visit our website, thearc.org, and join our fight.
Anderson: Peter Berns with The Arc, thank you for joining us.
Berns: It's great to be with you.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.