Workforce shortage in disability services causes significant concern

The Health and Human Service Reform Committee took a deep dive this week into workforce issues impacting organizations that provide services to people with disabilities. The Committee heard from several organizations about a severe shortage of available workers that makes it difficult to provide the kind of quality care that helps people with disabilities all over the state live with dignity and participate fully in their communities.

Topping the list of concerns was worker pay. Many service providers are reimbursed through public programs, meaning all or nearly all their funding is dependent on rates set by the government. As a result, it is very difficult to pay competitive wages to attract and retain staff when funding is often limited. Some organizations are also looking for additional resources to attract new workers to become caregivers and support staff and help train new staff to provide the highest quality care. Despite the challenging work, many providers emphasize that it can be a very rewarding and fulfilling career choice for anyone who is looking to make a difference in the lives of others.

The resources needed to address the workforce shortage far exceed what is possible under the state’s current budget outlook. Workers are paid far less than other comparable occupations, and in order to make wages competitive, the Department of Human Services believes the cost could be in the billions.

Advocates have come to the Legislature several times in recent years to secure some small increases in funding for staff wages. These efforts were hampered last year when the federal government declined to match the new raises authorized by the Legislature. Without the funding from the federal government to help pay for the increases, the Department of Human Services was forced to stop paying the higher rates last summer and several providers experienced cuts.

Lawmakers stepped in last session to reverse the cut, but the bill was included in the 990-page omnibus that was full of controversial provisions and ultimately vetoed. Legislators and advocates are trying again this year with new legislation to restore the funding, hearing two bills earlier that were laid over in committee until the budget forecast comes out at the end of the month. (SF6, SF92)