Minnesota’s providers of home and community based services for people with disabilities face a serious workforce crisis. The Star Tribune reported last year that there are 9,000 open positions in this field. This dilemma has been years in the making and can be attributed in part to a shrinking labor pool, greater service demands and wages that have not kept pace with other industries.
The Best Life Alliance, a Minnesota coalition that advocates for these services, is asking state legislators to pass a 4 percent wage increase for all direct support professionals (DSPs). In spite of broad support last year for a similar measure, proposed legislation never made it to a floor vote. With new leadership in 2017, we are hopeful that this will pass.
Unfortunately, Gov. Mark Dayton did not allocate funds in his budget that supports the Best Life Alliance’s call to increase DSP wages four percent. DSPs work alongside individuals with disabilities every day, and are a major factor in the effort to help people to get as far as they can in the employment realm. A wage increase is critical and long overdue, but we also need to take a broad systemic look at inefficiencies. We can reduce wasted state resources, and create long-term solutions to this workforce challenge.
For several years, nonprofit service providers have increasingly been forced to divert funds from DSPs to pay for growing governmental and bureaucratic demands. There are unfunded and often unnecessary regulations, audits, studies and poorly designed government administered functions and processes. Policies or laws are often created with good intent, but service providers must then address them and absorb the costs. Advocates lend help by seeking funds to offset costs and everyone soldiers on—providers, advocates and policymakers. People find it hard to recognize that many costly initiatives fail to actually improve services for people with disabilities. But, the policies, and higher costs, remain ongoing.
Take, for example, the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA). Certainly, people with disabilities should be informed about the opportunity and benefits of competitive work. This was already happening at most, if not all of the state’s nonprofit direct service providers. WIOA only adds another layer, and a process that diverts millions of dollars from direct support, to double up on counseling.
WIOA is new and the verdict is still out on its value. It’s off to a rocky start and looks to be following the playbook I mentioned. To be fair to Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED, this was a federal initiative. DEED is doing its best to meet the new requirements without much assistance from the Department of Labor, or additional federal funding.
DEED had to comply and absorb the cost. At the service agency where I work, we serve 190 individuals with disabilities. The vast majority are working. We had to bring staff out of direct service to manage WIOA related compliance. We too, have to absorb the cost, and that means less service for the people who need it.
Advocacy organizations are calling for funds to meet the demands of WIOA so we can regain the direct services lost. The money diverted to counseling sessions needs to be replaced. The governor
hears the call from his policymakers, and puts $7 million in his budget for WIOA. So, what is the outcome of WIOA so far?
Parents of people with significant intellectual disabilities are telling me that WIOA is a “waste of time.” They ask, “Do we really have to go through that again in a year?” Another person called it pointless. Furthermore, I have been asked more than once by parents if their son or daughter could be exempt from WIOA. The money, time, and energy would be better spent on the people who are truly helping folks with disabilities, DSPs.
WIOA and numerous other initiatives take money from the direct services that people with intellectual disabilities need. The workforce crisis is real. Scarce resources should be used more effectively to provide the best quality DSPs who will help people with disabilities to get as far as they can on the work continuum. Fair pay attracts quality people. This can’t be overstated. Investing in DSPs is building in a better future for people with disabilities.
-Michael Kraines is a board member for the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR). He is the executive director for CHOICE, Inc., an agency that works with people with intellectual disabilities in the areas of employment, advocacy, community involvement, and health and wellness.