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Group Homes For Those With Developmental Disabilities Face A Growing Worker Shortage

Pictured here are three adults with disabilities who look like they're having fun.
Olesia Bilkei
Adobe Stock
The Florida Developmental Disabilities Council is urging Governor Ron DeSantis to use American Rescue Plan dollars to raise wages for direct support professionals.

Developmental disability service providers are the latest to join a list of employers who say they're facing a worker shortage. Advocates say direct support professionals who left the industry because of health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic aren't returning now because of low wages.

When someone has a developmental disability, they may need help doing everyday tasks like brushing their teeth or managing their medication. Direct support professionals are the people hired to help them. They typically earn about $10 per hour. Valerie Breen, Executive Director of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, says lately that hasn't been enough to keep them in their jobs:

"In our job market today, if you can get a $15 job and someone else can only pay you 10, and you're going to have to work one-on-one with an individual hands-on, which job are you going to take in order to support your family?"

Many workers are hired by service providers, who accept Medicaid waivers from people with developmental disabilities. The waivers reimburse the providers, allowing them to pay the workers to do their jobs. But service providers say the rate at which Medicaid reimburses them isn't enough to pay a competitive wage. Breen says the pandemic has made things worse:

"There were more individuals who really did not feel safe working in these facilities or even coming into an individuals' home, or our individuals did not feel safe having them come in because there wasn't enough protective equipment. The vaccines weren't available at that time, etcetera."

Mark Swain is President and CEO of the ARC of Alachua County. ARC is an advocacy organization and service provider for those with developmental disabilities. He says workers who left the industry due to the pandemic aren't coming back:

"This pandemic has really had devastating effects on the supply chain of DSPs and people willing and ready to work in this profession."

Swain says the shortage of workers is so dire; the industry is in a crisis:

"For instance, the ARC of Alachua County, we need 160 direct support professionals to operate. And right now, we're 55 short."

Swain says if a group home doesn't have enough workers, it can shut down, causing those living there to possibly be institutionalized:

"Nobody wants to live in an institution. People were not meant to be institutionalized. It's something that we did early on in the last century and the century before because our culture really didn't know what to do."

Service providers run group homes while the state runs institutions. Swain says workers are leaving group homes to work for institutions because Florida raised its minimum pay for state employees to $13 an hour. Advocates hope help could come from the American Rescue Plan. Breen says her council is asking Governor Ron DeSantis to use some of the plans' dollars to raise wages for direct support professionals:

"We really need to be able to build the workforce and build the financial infrastructure whether it's in the home with the workforce that's needed to support the families or it's in the facilities where the workforce needs to be recruited and sustained. We need more dollars to negotiate in order to do that."

Using funds from the American Rescue Plan would be a temporary fix. Swain says his group will be asking the Florida Legislature to raise the rate for four Medicaid waiver services that would allow service providers to be reimbursed at a higher rate and, in turn, pay their workers a higher wage.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.