Long plagued by high turnover and low pay, new research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic further amplified the extraordinary pressures on direct support professionals who help people with developmental disabilities in their day-to-day lives.

A survey of more than 8,800 DSPs from across the nation finds that the pandemic squeezed workers in an already difficult profession.

Nearly half of DSPs reported that they had been exposed to COVID-19 at work. And, even though 97% of those surveyed considered themselves essential workers, only about a third received a pay bump or bonus during the pandemic.

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The findings are outlined in a new report from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration and the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. The study is based on a survey conducted between November 2020 and January 2021 that researchers say is the largest of its kind.

The majority of DSPs said that since the pandemic started they have worked at least as much or more than they did previously. Just over half said the places where they work are adequately staffed and only 51% said they are guaranteed paid time off if they display symptoms of COVID-19.

Three-quarters of DSPs indicated that they have been trained to use personal protective equipment and 81% said they had a sufficient supply of the safety gear.

Most DSPs said that the people with disabilities they support are social distancing at a level they consider “good” or “excellent.” However, they indicated that the pandemic has taken a toll on their charges who miss going out into the community and have had less exercise, increased behavior issues and mood swings, anxiety, loneliness and boredom.

“These findings underscore a number of systemic problems regarding the direct support workforce that provides services and supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Amy Hewitt, director of the Institute on Community Integration’s Research and Training Center on Community Living and a lead author of the study. “Turnover, vacancies and low wages — a national average that is just more than $12 an hour — has devastating effects on these professionals and, subsequently, on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”