The coronavirus is rocking the already unstable workforce of direct support professionals assisting people with developmental disabilities, with a new survey finding nearly half know someone who’s left the profession due to the pandemic.

The survey of nearly 9,000 direct support workers across the nation finds that 34 percent are working more hours since COVID-19 emerged and a quarter say they are more often short-staffed. Only 24 percent reported receiving extra pay related to the increased risks associated with the virus, often another $1 or $2 added to an average wage of $13.63 per hour.

The findings come from research conducted between April 23 and May 27 by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration and the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. Nearly 60 percent of those who responded had worked as direct support professionals for at least three years. Most were employed by agencies, but a substantial number worked in individual homes.

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Some 42 percent of those surveyed said they knew a direct support professional who had left their job since the pandemic began over worries about becoming infected, due to child care issues, contracting COVID-19 or other reasons.

Of those hired since the pandemic started, 27 percent did not receive the typical orientation or preservice training for their jobs, the report found.

A majority of direct support professionals indicated that the people with developmental disabilities they support were good or very good at practicing social distancing. But with 64 percent reporting that the individuals they served were not allowed to see any family or friends, direct support professionals indicated that boredom, depression, behavior issues, loneliness and increased sleeping were common among their clients.

“Hearing from workers themselves is key to changing policy, and this is an excellent time to ask them about their experiences,” said Amy Hewitt, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. “This overwhelming response creates possibly the largest-ever sample of the workforce supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through social media and direct outreach to advocates, providers, individuals with disabilities and families who employ DSPs, we have given voice to a group of professionals that has traditionally been difficult to reach.”

Those behind the report called for direct support professionals to be classified as essential workers going forward and to provide them with better pay, training and access to safety equipment. People with developmental disabilities should have access to technology that facilitates social interaction and these individuals and their families should have a say in policies regarding social contact during the pandemic, the researchers said.

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