CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — A staffing crisis that is crippling care programs for individuals with disabilities is forcing Saratoga County’s largest nonprofit human services agency to temporarily “pause” a day habilitation program in Clifton Park.

For some of the roughly two dozen families affected, the looming decisions include whether a parent might have to quit their job to care for their loved one during the day.

“At that particular site we felt that it’s not safe to do the day program with as many individuals, with the staffing shortages that we have,” said Jane Mastaitis, chief executive officer at Saratoga Bridges, one of 36 chapters of The Arc New York, the state’s largest nonprofit organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “We’re just so short of staff; it’s just a decision that we made as a team … for the safety of the individuals.”

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Mastaitis said the temporary closure is scheduled to begin Aug. 15 at the facility on Clifton Park Center Road.

It is among dozens of closures of similar residential and day habilitation programs by state-run and nonprofit agencies that have been unfolding across the state. Although New York increased the wages it pays workers in state-run facilities, the private sector — especially nonprofit organizations — account for about 80% of the services provided to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But the average wage for care workers in that sector is still under $15 an hour.

Joseph Pisacane, 61, a Waterford resident who is the sole caretaker of his 31-year-old son, said the temporary closure of the Clifton Park program is likely to force him to quit his job. During the pandemic, he said, he had to leave his job for more than a year because of the lack of services available for his son, a situation exacerbated by COVID-19 shutdowns.

“My son has a seizure disorder from birth and he’s totally disabled,” Pisacane said. “He is mobile, but for how much longer I don’t know. He wears a diaper and doesn’t communicate. I’m a single dad trying to do this on my own for the last 13 years. I’m really struggling and I don’t know what to do anymore.”

He’s not alone: Families across the state — and nationwide — are facing similar crises as group homes and facilities that serve individuals with disabilities are facing closure due to an unprecedented staffing crisis brought on, in part, by low wages and other factors impacting the industry.

Laura Styczynski, whose 30-year-old son attends Saratoga Bridge’s day habilitation program, said she also may be forced to take a leave from her job at a school in order to care for him during the closure.

“They said that it’s for an indefinite period of time, and they said when day-hab reopens it may not reopen for us here in Clifton Park,” Styczynski said. “I work in a school, so come Labor Day I need the situation to be resolved so that I can go back to work to carry some of the benefits for our family as well as the income needed to help provide for all three of our children. … I can’t go to my job, which means the school system that I work for is going to be short-handed. It’s a very stressful situation for families.”

Styczynski said she does not fault the workers whom she said “break their backs every day” but in many instances could receive more pay working for a chain restaurant.

“They need to pay the staff more,” she said. “These people work so hard and are so dedicated to these individuals that it’s just a shame for everyone that they’re struggling this way.”

Kate Geurin, a spokeswoman for The Arc New York, said that government-funded one-time bonuses distributed to employees this year helped retain workers in the private sector but had little impact on recruitment.

“We’ve found that what’s much more effective is increases in base pay, and also the retention bonuses are ending so we have some concerns that we’ll actually lose staff once that’s played out,” Geurin said. “It was a real stopgap solution. So we did get COLA (cost-of-living-adjustment) funding and some providers are able to increase wages using those funds, but it’s really still not enough to remain competitive.”

Geurin added the organization is “very, very cognizant of the problems that it causes for families” when services are suspended, “but we need to know that we’re bringing people into a safe environment.”

Mastaitis said Saratoga Bridges — which also operates day habilitation programs in Malta, Wilton and Saratoga Springs that will remain open — used to compete for workers with other nonprofits that provide similar services. Now, she said, they are competing with all employers — including fast-food restaurants and retail stores vying to hire the workers who are willing to fill vacant jobs.

“In fact, prior to COVID we served over 400 people in our day program, and right now are serving about half of that because of staffing,” Mastaitis said. “I don’t know where the workforce went. … It’s hitting families hard. … It’s very, very difficult to make a decision like this. Everybody is out of staff.”

Saratoga Bridges is seeking alternative programs for the families who will be affected by the closure of the Clifton Park day program, though it’s not clear how many options there are; it may require some to travel longer distances.

Rural areas of the state, especially in the Finger Lakes region, are among the regions hard-hit by the “suspensions” of residential services that have resulted in many people with developmental disabilities being forced to move into new group homes or care facilities, sometimes long distances away from their families.

In January, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration announced it had applied for $2.2 billion in federal aid to strengthen the home care workforce, including implementing a “data-driven” strategy for recruiting workers for the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

According to the Public Employees Federation, OPWDD’s civil service workforce declined by more than 10,000 workers — to just under 20,000 — between 1990 and last year.

OPWDD officials said they have been implementing salary increases since March to improve recruitment and retention. The first phase of that, which increased pay to more than $20 per hour for the state workforce’s “direct support assistants,” resulted in more than 4,000 workers receiving an increase. They are also increasing salaries for higher-level clinical workers as well as nurses.

The agency said it has needed to implement “emergency measures to ensure the safety of people living in a small number of group homes that are unable to retain or recruit sufficient staffing levels.”

In the past three years, 130 OPWDD-operated group homes across the state were “temporarily suspended” due to staff vacancies, the agency said. That does not include facilities operated by nonprofit agencies, which provide most of the state’s care.

As of the end of March, OPWDD was seeking emergency residential placement for 1,059 people who were either “homeless or in imminent danger of being homeless.” There were 2,270 people seeking residential placement in a “substantial need category, which includes people at an increasing risk of having no permanent place to live, such as someone whose family or other caregivers are becoming increasingly unable to continue to provide care for the person.”

An additional 2,159 people were seeking residential placement but were not considered to be in “emergency” or “substantial need” situations.

An official with the New York Disability Advocates recently told a state Senate committee that there had been a roughly 25% vacancy rate for direct care workers, which was about 75% higher than before the pandemic.

© 2022 Times Union
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