Missouri, Kansas Face ‘Workforce Crisis’ Of Workers Caring For People With Disabilities | KCUR 89.3

While most people fell silent last Friday night, Andrea Howell’s job was only just beginning.

As a direct support professional, Howell provides care to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She spends her Fridays looking after Amber and Tonisha, two clients living in a group home in Olathe.

Any other day, she would cook dinner after recovering them from their daily activities. But Fridays mark a special event at home – when they celebrate the end of their week by eating out.

“Where are you going to have dinner today?” What would you like to eat? “Howell asks the girls. Amber sings her favorite place, McDonald’s, which Howell says she chooses almost every week.

It’s the end of a long week for Howell, who usually spends about 50 hours a week in the group home. And she has another babysitting job on top of that.

A national workforce crisis

This staggering workload is all too familiar to direct caregivers nationwide as the industry grapples with a chronic staff shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were (in) a workforce crisis before COVID happened and, of course, it didn’t improve. He continued to get angry, but so did the entire health care spectrum, ”said Valerie Huhn, acting director of the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

Huhn says that nearly 77% of people who started in the field in 2019 ended up leaving. She suspects that the pay level is a big part of the reason people quit.

Huhn says the state’s base wages are now around $ 12 an hour. This salary may have been handy when budgets were set, but the market has changed dramatically over the past couple of years.

This change has prompted waves of nurses to leave their local hospitals for higher-paying travel jobs elsewhere. Likewise, local agencies say social workers are leaving the field for companies that increased their base wages during the pandemic.

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KCUR 89.3

Demarcus January is Director of Alternative Solutions, an Olathe-based direct care provider.

“It’s still not enough”

This was the case at Alternative solutions, the Olathe-based direct care agency Howell works for. The agency’s director, Demarcus January, said that in the first two months of the pandemic, its workforce of around 40 employees had halved.

Janvier says workers were leaving early for safety reasons, when so much about COVID was unknown. But even when the number of cases declined, its workers did not return in sufficient numbers to make up for those who left.

He says many have left for higher paying jobs at companies like Postmates or Ubereats.

On top of that, January says it’s hard to attract applicants when businesses and care agencies all compete for the same limited pool of workers.

“I mean, our starting salary now, during COVID, and after the initial wave of COVID, went from a starting salary of $ 14 to $ 15, to $ 16, just to attract people. And that’s still not enough, ”says January.

He says the remaining team learned “to do more with less” by taking on extra shifts and working long hours. He says he makes sure workers don’t have to work overtime, but it’s difficult to cover shifts when employees suddenly have to quarantine or test positive for COVID.

January says he’s consolidated their services from 11 to six group homes. Still, he’s worried about how the shortage has hampered his team’s ability to expand their services.

“I think it’s going to have an impact because in business we all know if you don’t grow up you die,” January says.

“Telephone alarm clock”

the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR), an advocacy group for service providers, says the shortage has implications for direct care agencies nationwide.

Barbara Merrill, CEO of ANCOR, says the field has faced challenges in recruiting and retaining staff for more than two decades.

ANCOR reports that 77% of providers turned away or stopped accepting new referrals due to understaffing, an increase of 16.7% since the start of the pandemic. The report also found that 81% of providers struggled to deliver the quality of service they were looking for.

Merrill says the numbers should be “a wake-up call” to policymakers.

“What that just means is all the amazing progress we’ve made in this country over the years to free people from institutional life so that they can live in the community like you and me, like anyone. who else – we “run an extraordinary risk of losing this progress,” she said.

The report noted that 58% of providers had discontinued programs and services due to staffing issues. That’s a 70.6% increase from pre-pandemic levels.

A woman wearing a light colored blouse and pink surgical pants gestures while talking about cooking to a person seated at a dining table with her back to the camera and holding a bottle of water.

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KCUR 89.3

Andrea Howell begins her shift at a group home in Olathe planning what her clients will receive for their special Friday night dinner.

Service reduction

Local healthcare providers grapple with the heartbreaking decision to cut services as they continue to struggle to retain staff during the pandemic.

Association Easterseals Midwest serves 5,000 people with disabilities, offering services ranging from early childhood programs and community living services to job placement services.

Casey Melancon, the organization’s director of autism services in Kansas City, said his team shrank by about 60% during the pandemic, leaving them with only a handful of workers.

“Our waiting list for parent training is probably 40 to 45 people right now, which makes me lose sleep at night,” says Melacon. “Then our ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) waitlist is probably around 20 people now, and pretty much anytime. He’s just going to keep growing.

Eastersea Midwest CEO Wendy Sullivan said many of the agency’s people who stick around are working overtime to make ends meet, making burnout a problem even for their “very, very. good people”.

Hailey Coy, employment services supervisor at the Kansas City Department of Eastersea Midwest, says she “absolutely” feels the exhaustion. Its job is to assess people’s skills to place and support them in jobs in the community.

This means that when they work, she works. Coy says that most Sundays she has no idea what her schedule will be like for the week, but the long hours are almost a guarantee.

Coy says she enjoys her job, but admits that the salary can be a big factor in attracting new people to direct support work.

“I’m the one looking for jobs for individuals and I see entry-level positions, like a cashier position, and I’m making just as much money,” Coy says. “Well, that person can go home at the end of their shift and they don’t have to worry about the schedule, the planning. “

Calls for better remuneration

This is why organizations like ANCOR are advocating for more funding at the state and national levels.

“This is not minimum wage work and yet our industry competes with other minimum wage employers,” Merrill said.

A wage increase could happen for some workers if The push from Missouri Governor Mike Parson for a standard wage of $ 15 an hour for state employees becomes law. Parson said in a press release that the increase would be aimed at addressing the unprecedented turnover of many jobs in the state.

Merrill says much-needed relief could also come from the Build Back Better plan, a roughly $ 2 trillion spending bill currently stuck in the US Senate. The plan would allocate $ 150 billion to improve Medicaid coverage of home care services for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Huhn, of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, says that even if federal dollars do arrive, it takes a while before they reach the states. That’s why she says they need to look at existing resources, work on recruiting strategies, and make more room for bottom-up growth.

“You have to like it”

Despite the long hours and low pay, Coy says she still enjoys her job.

“It’s almost like detective work, you get to know an individual, their interests and their strengths and you associate that with a company that you know, what its environment looks like and what natural supports there are. find, “says Coy.

January says that while a higher salary may allow social workers to quit their second job, those in this field aren’t there for the money.

“They have the option to leave, but the fact that they are staying lets me know,” January says.

Howell, the direct care worker at Alternative Solutions, says that while a better salary might persuade more people to stay in her job, people really need to care about what they’re doing.

“I mean, it can be difficult. Long hours, customers are sometimes difficult, difficult to get along with, ”Howell says. “But then you take it to another level and say, ‘Okay, why am I here? I am here to help them have a better quality of life.

Howell says her favorite part of the job is when she can tell she’s doing a good job.

“Someone that maybe doesn’t speak well, and they wave a hand up, they love you, that’s the best part of the job,” Howell says. “Or when they give you a hug and it’s unexpected, that’s the best part of the job – when you know you’ve done your best for them.”

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