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The Care Crisis: 1 in 4 direct support positions vacant in New York

Four people stand holding signs at a rally in Downtown Buffalo on May 24 regarding the DSP hiring crisis.
Emyle Watkins
Four people stand holding signs at a rally in Downtown Buffalo on May 24 regarding the DSP hiring crisis.

For the past several weeks, disability community and their allies have been expressing great concern over a major gap in workers that support the every day lives of people with disabilities.

On Monday May 24, a large crowd of advocates gathered outside of Community Services for Every1 in Downtown Buffalo. They were sounding the alarm on a shortage of support professionals. It started with a prayer and call to action from Pastor Kinzer Pointer:

“This can't go on, we must make sure not only that every position is filled, but that when we are advertising and interviewing for these positions, that the wages that we are paying are living wages. This is a social justice issue," Pointer said.

For many people with disabilities, living independently often includes having support from a home health aide, or, in the settings of a group home or other residential setting, aides known as direct support professionals, or DSPs. Currently, in New York State, one in four, or 24.75 percent, of DSP positions are vacant,according to a recent survey by New York Disability Advocates. The survey included 118 provider agencies.

DSPs are the foundation of many agencies that serve people with intellectual or developmental disabilities – they support or help people with a variety of every day tasks, including anything from learning money management, taking medication, or using the bathroom.

And when these positions are vacant – it leaves many people without the support they need to have a good quality of life and to live in the community.

“My story is not really a simple one, I rely on staff for pretty much my total care, because I can't dress myself, I can't get myself up, I use a Hoyer lift and all that stuff. And without my DSPs, I wouldn't be able to go out and do the advocacy that I do for everyone, not just for myself. I even have to plan my daily bathroom needs around when staff are available, which of course doesn't make my medical professionals happy, because it makes me sick, and I can't do what I need to do to help others," said BJ Stasio.

BJ Stasio is the president of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, an organization founded and led by people with developmental disabilities. That quote you just heard was from a week and a half after the Buffalo rally – at a statewide summit about the crisis. He spoke at both, and he spoke most days inbetween at other events, from a candidate event for Buffalo mayoral race to a round table at Developmental Disability Day.

The staffing crisis is on Stasio’s mind every day, even in the grocery store.

"When I'm out shopping, I look at people and say, 'oh, maybe I could introduce myself to this person and say, maybe they want to come to work for me, maybe I should say, do you want to help another human being because I'm not only a person with a disability, but I'm a human being' I needed a hand up not a handout,” Stasio said.

But agencies say the challenge is getting and retaining DSPs due to wages. According to New York Disability Advocates, almost all of the money that pays DSPs comes into the agency from the government. NYDA says that the average starting rate of pay in many parts of the state is below $15 an hour, and only some are near $20 an hour. According to MIT, the living wagefor a one parent, one child household in Erie County is $29.89.

The Developmental Disability Alliance of Western New York, also known as DDAWNY, is a coalition of the agencies that support people with disabilities. At the rally, they called on New York State to stop a scheduled funding cut, raise the rate DSPs are paid over the next three years, and to add a two percent annual cost of living adjustment for DSP wages.

Mindy Cervoni is the President and CEO of Community Services for Every1. She says that five years ago, they would have over 7,000 applicants to DSP positions, now, it’s less than 1,000. NYDA also reports that 93.16 percent of the 118 providers they surveyed reported a decrease in applicants.

“Over the last few weeks when we've been talking to DSPs, who have been leaving because we have more people leaving than coming in. We've heard somebody who had a parent die who they lived with and they no longer can afford their rent, they have to find another job just to be able to pay their rent. We had we found out one of our direct care staff was living in her car, she was homeless. She was bouncing from couch to couch because she couldn't afford her rent. We need to help change people's minds about the priority of direct support professionals," said Cervoni.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.