Human services agencies face staffing crisis, delaying services for those in need

A constant stream of workers left community social service jobs like the one in Bunker during the pandemic, and many jobs go unfilled, leading to a staff shortage that has reached emergency levels, according to providers. Some programs face vacancy rates of up to 60 percent. At the same time, needs have increased, especially in behavioral health, and the wait for services – ranging from drug treatment to day programs for people with developmental disabilities, support for young people and to the elderly – increases.

Almost all sectors of the state are experiencing labor shortages. But in these predominantly nonprofit jobs in human services, the effects are far reaching. Workers facing COVID-induced stress are working double shifts to compensate for staff shortages. And with so many unfilled jobs, vulnerable populations are not always able to get the essential services they need.

Senior Health Care Coordinator Emily Donahue helped participant Marylou Watson wash her hands in the Advocates Day Services Adaptation Room.Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff

Bunker is grieved to leave the people she has long served with so few resources as she makes the switch to clients who, for the most part, have private insurance or can afford to pay out of pocket.

“I feel guilty,” she said. “And then I get angry because, why are these people so underestimated?” And why are the services they need and the service providers so undervalued? “

Low wages in social services are a major contributor to the labor shortage, according to a coalition of state social service professional associations. Median salaries are slightly above $ 27,000 – which includes part-time employees but not most licensed clinical staff, such as nurses – well below the median of $ 40,500 for all other industries in the world. State, according to a 2019 report commissioned by the Providers’ Council, which represents 200 agencies in Massachusetts. Average salary of people who provide daily care to clients in group homes and day programs only cost $ 15 to $ 17 an hour.

Pay rates are largely determined by the state, according to providers, which is the primary source of funding for human service agencies. And with a staffing crisis in full swing, a coalition of human service associations is appealing to the state for hundreds of millions of dollars more to retain and recruit staff over the next five years and to create a student loan repayment program for existing employees as they work toward a more permanent solution.

Of the 180,000 state social service positions, ranging from workers helping developmentally disabled clients to licensed clinicians with master’s degrees, 8 in 10 are employed by women, according to the Providers’ Council, and the industry is twice as likely to employ black workers and 1.5 times as likely to employ Latinos.

The state did not respond to questions about vacancy rates, waiting lists or requests for additional funding, but noted several temporary salary increases for frontline social service workers and overall increases. of the funding it provided during the pandemic. The latest supplement – a 10 percent rate hike in monthly supplier reimbursements intended to give workers bonuses or short-term increases – was due to end in December but could be extended for six months.

The permanent salary increase is crucial, said Diane Gould, president of Advocates at Framingham, one of Greater Boston’s largest human services agencies, especially now that Amazon and other companies are offering salaries. higher than those of many of its direct care employees. In Lawyer Employment Program, Some Clients With Disabilities Land Jobs In Private Firms earn more money than their coaches, she said. It’s gratifying, given their hopes for their clients, but also demoralizing.

Lawyers have lost so many registered clinicians in its mental health and addiction clinics – 16 in the past year – and the need has grown so much that the waiting list has swelled to 250 people, Gould said. “They come in with significant issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said, including alcohol and drug use, depression and domestic violence.

Westwood-based Lifeworks has 60 vacancies on its staff of 345, which severely limits its ability to serve those in need, President Daniel Burke said. Lifeworks’ Abel Therapy Center, an adult day program for people with autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, mobility and sensory impairments, is half-functioning due to the staffing needs of the center and businesses that transport customers there.

Families without a place to send their loved ones are forced to take over, disrupting their lives and their ability to work. “It’s a huge burden of care,” said Burke.

Benette Guerrier’s 22-year-old daughter Benshyana, who has autism, has been stuck at home in Randolph since leaving her boarding school in August and was put on a waiting list for a day program. A personal care attendant comes to help him during the day, but the attendant isn’t trained to help people like his daughter, said Guerrier, who works as a surgical technologist at Brockton Hospital. “She’s just sitting there doing nothing. … This is not good for her.

Raising the wages of social service workers would go a long way in alleviating the workforce crisis, said Peter MacKinnon, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 509, which represents 8,000 private sector social service workers in contracted facilities. the state. But the increase in state funding must be linked to workers’ wages, with a fixed part meant to increase wages, to solve the problem, he said.

“While rates have gone up by hundreds of millions of dollars, and that’s good, the CEO’s salary, the administrative salary, have gone up disproportionately compared to the salaries of the people who actually do the work,” he said. -he declares. “And it’s incredibly important work that literally touches people’s lives and makes sure that these people are cared for, that they are able to thrive. If you value it as a job then you have to pay the people who do the job fairly.

Michael Weekes, chairman of the Providers’ Council, said efforts to link funding to wages are a “distraction.” No matter how much of the budget is spent on wages, he said, agencies won’t be able to attract the best workers if there isn’t enough money to start.

The main priority is to reduce the staff shortage, he said: “Our workforce crisis means that people are being denied services that really affect their health and safety.”

Mental health needs in particular have skyrocketed during the pandemic, said Anne Pelletier Parker, executive director of Behavioral Health Partners at MetroWest. Calls to the agency’s hotline have increased 46% this year compared to 2020, she said. Wait times have also increased, with the number of people waiting three months or more for services increasing by 13% between fiscal 2020 and 2021.

The shortage of licensed behavioral health clinicians is particularly alarming, she said, as many of them go to practices that don’t always take insurance. “There is a great demand from people who can afford to pay out of pocket,” she said.

Rosewood Day Services in Danvers serves half the number of adults with autism before the pandemic due to understaffing, according to a services official, who asked not to be named to protect his job security. Clients who would normally go out and learn independent living skills at the center are stuck at home, causing some of them to regress or lose skills they had previously mastered, she said.

It’s hard work, without a lot of monetary rewards, said the service manager, who earns just over $ 20 an hour after 16 years in the field. And as the agency scrambles to fill positions, it fears the quality of care is suffering.

“They just hire people for bodies, not for experience,” she said. “We want people who want to be here.

Katie Johnston can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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