The COVID-19 pandemic proved two things when it comes to essential workers in Queens: Not all heroes wear capes, and there aren’t enough of them, especially when it comes to staffing group homes for people with developmental disabilities.
Organizations that provide supports and services to this vulnerable population in residences across the borough have been plagued with a chronic shortage of Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) since the onset of the public health emergency more than 19 months ago, and still, these providers are having difficulty filling positions.
“I’ve worked at the agency for more than 25 years and in all that time it was never this bad,” Queens Centers for Progress Director of Adult Services Ed Weiss said. “All of our programs are struggling but the staffing of our residences remains problematic. You need people who can work with our clients within the six feet of social distancing while wearing a mask and PPE to take care of individuals. Our staff are paid at minimum wage which certainly makes it challenging especially when they can get a job in a fast-food establishment with less responsibility.”
Intellectual and developmental disability service providers are funded by the state and wages for DSPs have been stagnant for years. Budget restraints make it difficult to attract and retain staff during normal times, and the pandemic exacerbated the problem.
Queens Centers for Progress has participated in the borough president’s office monthly virtual job fair to fill positions at its residences in Jackson Heights, Jamaica Estates and its Bellerose campus, where there are five homes.
“When you’re already working with a skeleton crew you have a hard time bringing in new people,” Weiss said. “We’re hoping Governor Kathy Hochul sees things differently than Cuomo did.”
YAI, previously known as Young Adult Institute, is an organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in New York City since 1957 and runs homes in Ozone Park and Jamaica. Residence supervisor Jamie Stein said the ongoing workforce crisis damages morale and staff mental health.
“The industry has always had a high turnover rate, but during COVID-19 it has gotten especially bad,” Stein said. “Wages are a top concern among staff. We’re doing a lot more than just taking care of people we support. We’re working very closely with them, very hands-on, and if everybody could see what we do to support people, they would understand we’re underpaid.”
According to the Human Services Research Center, 41.5 percent of DSPs are people of color. This makes the low wages a racial justice issue, with many advocates asking the state why a job where almost half of the workers are people of color is set at such a low wage. Turnover, shortages, and pressure to perform among staff hurt the people they support, too, Stein explained.
“We form bonds with the people we support and earn their trust. When staff leaves, the people ask us, ‘Why did they leave? I really liked them, and I would like them back,’” Stein said.
YAI has mobilized to engage federal legislators including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, who hopes to pass President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure bill by late October. The legislation would provide $400 billion for services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Whatever happens, it is crucial the federal government hears from staff themselves,” Stein said. “My staff work extremely hard and take a lot of pride in our work. If only everybody could see that and what we do to support people.”
Meanwhile, AHRC NYC, which operates several residences in Queens held a job fair at its Bloomberg Apartments in Jamaica last month.
“While we were able to meet with many applicants who were interested in working in different departments at AHRC New York City, the job fair was especially fruitful in that we were able to make offers and hire three people on the spot,” said Michael Weinberg, Vice President of Residential Services. “This was incredibly important for us as we are trying to fill a number of vacant positions throughout our residential system in Queens.”
The organization will host another job fair at the Bloomberg Apartments located at 89-02 162nd Street on Thursday, Oct. 14, to meet and discuss the rewarding options of a career in the field of disabilities. There are openings in Queens for direct support professionals, management team members, and nurses.