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As industry faces shortage of direct support professionals, officials call for renewed efforts to aid ‘forgotten’ essential workers

RISE Life Services of Riverhead and representatives from the East End Disability Associates warned of a workforce crisis and called for federal financial assistance to combat the problem at a press conference Tuesday in Riverhead.

The officials said there’s a shortage of direct support professionals (DSP) who care for people with special needs. In attendance were dozens of special needs persons with their caretakers as well as local officials, like Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Baiting Hollow), Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Councilman Ken Rothwell.

“It is time for New York State to begin investing in these essential workers,” Ms. Giglio said. “We need to create a career pathway with suitable pay and benefits to recruit and retain workers for the long term in order to ensure that our loved ones always receive the care that they deserve.” She read a letter that the minority in the state Assembly had written to New York Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, in July about this issue. 

In the letter they also request that the $1.6 billion in federal medical assistance funding for home and community based services from the American Rescue Plan of 2021 be used to provide immediate financial support to workers who serve vulnerable populations. The Assembly has not received a response to this letter, according to Ms. Giglio.

RISE Life Services, which was previously known as Aid To The Developmentally Disabled, is a nonprofit established in Riverhead in 1980 to provide a range of services of developmentally disabled, mentally ill and dual diagnosed adults. Charles Evdos, the executive director for RISE Life Services, said there are over 500,000 direct care workers in New York.

“During the pandemic our essential workers, the police, the fire marshals, the nurses, the doctors, all are essential workers but so are our DSPs,” he said. “And we have forgotten them.”

Charles Evdos, executive director of RISE Life Services, speaks at Tuesday’s press conference. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

The demand for DSP’s far exceeds the supply. To sustain the level of service needed at the current turnover rate of 45%, 574,200 new DSPs would need to be hired into the workforce every year, according to the Administration for Community Living, an agency through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The lack of stability in the workforce is due to multiple reasons including lack of benefits, training and promotion opportunities as well as low wages, advocates said.

“When I became a DSP I was excited because I was able to give back. I was able to make a difference,” said Matthew Kuriloff of East End Disability Associates, a Riverhead-based nonprofit. “I was able to find a career path… Right now we are competing directly with places like McDonalds and places like Target. People at Target and McDonalds now make more money than most of our DSPs today, that’s the crisis…”

Ms. Giglio presented a proposal from the minority members of the  Assembly which had been included in the letter that had been sent to Dr. Zucker in July. They proposed to create the “New York State Workers with Vulnerable Populations Benefits Fund” to support benefit plans for eligible workers. Ms. Giglio explained that the fund would be financed in part by voluntary public, employee and private donations. It would provide an annual state personal income tax exemption on the first $50,000 that these workers receive, create a new optional retirement program like the SUNY optional retirement program for these workers and require the state to pay the employers contribution rate on behalf of the employee. 

Other solutions the proposal included are establishing a base wage for workers with vulnerable populations at 150 percent of the regional minimum wage. It would provide tax credits for employers to help offset the base wage and incentivize them to provide health benefits to these workers. Lastly, it would require the state to make recommendations to improve retention statewide.

“We’re hoping to get more staff and hopefully the wage will go up. If not, we still got to do what we got to do,” said Tisa Robinson, day habilitation coordinator at East End Disability Associates. 

The press conference featured special needs persons with their caretakers. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)