COVID-19 affected staffing, clients’ lives

Staffing challenges, inadequate wage increases, burnout and depression formed COVID-19’s legacy among the professionals who support people with disabilities in their […]

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Staffing challenges, inadequate wage increases, burnout and depression formed COVID-19’s legacy among the professionals who support people with disabilities in their daily lives, a new report from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration (ICI) shows. 

Direct support professionals (DSPs) worked more overtime hours and took on new duties during the pandemic as many of their colleagues were unable to work. The average hourly wages grew 13 percent, to $16.58, during the April 2020 to July 2022 period. But it wasn’t enough to adequately cover living costs. By 2022, about two-thirds were working additional weekly hours due to the pandemic. 

“Asking these professionals to continually add work hours and new responsibilities exacerbates burnout and accelerates the retention challenges that service providers have been battling for many years,” said Sandra Pettingell, an ICI research associate and lead author of the November report, Direct Support Workforce and COVID-19: What Happened Over 24 Months?  

The report outlines challenges to overcome. But it highlights opportunities to act to improve the workplace experience for DSPs and front line supervisors and the life experience of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. DSPs and frontline supervisors deliver crucial services and supports to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities so they can live, work, socialize and prosper in their communities. 

The report is a summary of four online national surveys ICI administered with partners, including the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals, ANCOR, the Arc, and NASDDDS. Nearly 9,000 DSPs and frontline supervisors completed the first survey, the largest survey to date of this workforce. Approximately 25,000 surveys were completed. 

At the 24-month mark: 

  • Nearly half (47 percent) of DSPs had not received COVID-19 augmentation pay or a bonus. 
  • 52 percent had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 
  • 16 percent of the DSP workforce had been vaccinated. 

“In Covid’s early days, we knew that direct support professionals were, once again, about to be immersed in crisis. It was critical to understand how their work, their health, their mental health, and their home lives would be affected,” said Joseph Macbeth, chief executive officer and president of the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP). “The NADSP team worked closely with ICI to get the word out to tens of thousands of DSPs through our robust social media forums and our connections within the provider community. It would have been a colossal failure for our field if we did not capture and publish the impact that the virus had on our workforce.” 

One key survey question was the reason or reasons they or their coworkers were not currently working. Workers feared becoming infected, had childcare issues, feared infecting others, and had tested positive for COVID-19. 

The report also places an emphasis on how the COVID-19 pandemic experiences should inform future pandemic response. 

“Comprehensive, organized and funded response plans at national and state levels for future natural disaster emergencies and pandemics. Whether a natural disaster emergency or another pandemic, with the proximal nature of their work, DSPs and frontline supervisors are at high risk of being exposed to infection through circumstances resulting from disaster (e.g., flooding, hurricanes, tornados) as well as from working with people who are at higher risk for infection and other complications from viruses,’ the report stated. “Employers need to have existing emergency plans that can be activated at a moment’s notice. It is important to have  readily for (everyone) to protect everyone’s health and safety. Some safety measures that were developed during the pandemic may be considered as standard practice (e.g., additional cleaning, training on health and safety for staff), but it is also important to have learned from COVID-19 what safety measures should be immediately implemented for disasters and/or pandemics in the future . . . Specific to new pandemics, if vaccinations are a component of the solution, educational materials depicting (staff) high risk of exposure, vaccination campaigns and incentives provided to get workers vaccinated are important.” 

Read the report at Direct Support Workforce and COVID 19: What Happened Over 24 Months?

Thanks to ICI for allowing Access Press to reprint a newsletter article and excerpts from the report.

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  • "Stay safe, Minnesota. Take steps to protect yourself & others from the COVID-19 virus."

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